It seems like a lifetime ago that I wrote the fictional work “47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair”. It has been online since 2006, largely forgotten even by me.
But I woke up this morning thinking about this piece of writing, about the feelings that had provoked it.
It is of its time, of course, and real life has moved past some of the predictions I made. But in the light of what has been happening, it seems to me to be more relevant than ever…
When (in fragment 23) I invented a judge sentencing a man for going for walk and warning him that “it is incumbent on each and every one of us to ensure that we have acquired the necessary authorisation and documentation before embarking upon any journey beyond the realm of our established daily activities”, could I have ever imagined that one day I myself would need to carry an “attestation” simply to step outside?
Here it is anyway, reposted in 2020, from a France under “sanitary” martial law.
47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair
by Paul Cudenec
“Hope is a strange thing. A currency for people who know they are losing.”
Frankie Mac in Richard Jobson’s film ‘16 Years of Alcohol’.
“Somehow you will fail. Something will defeat you. Life will defeat you.”
Winston Smith to his torturers in George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
A long, long, time ago children’s laughter filled the morning air.
They babbled, they shrieked, they sang, they skipped, they ran.
The joyful hubbub echoed all around the houses and the old people in their kitchens smiled to themselves as they heard it.
Then a bell rang. Once. Twice. Thrice.
The children stopped still in their tracks. Their games and their shared worlds of magic evaporated into nothing.
Young faces turned down to the shadows that had swallowed their smiles. Silence engulfed them all.
One boy sat huddled in the corner of the yard, gazing defiantly away through the fence towards the Downs beyond.
But even he knew, deep inside, that his refusal could change nothing.
Playtime was over.
A 42 year old man has been found guilty of stealing fruit.
Kevin Tyler from Bognor Regis was observed, by satellite, taking and consuming blackberries from the roadside near Arundel, West Sussex, magistrates at Chichester were told.
Tyler was fined £500, ordered to pay £50 compensation to hedgerow owners Globartis plc and banned from entering within five metres of any blackberry plant between the months of July and September for the next six years.
The system didn’t like it when Jack turned off the motorway at an exit signposted “Lancing”.
“Navigational error, navigational error!” it whined in its irritatingly inhuman take on an already irritating female American voice.
“Departure from recommended route! Departure from recommended route! Your estimated time of arrival is now delayed by two minutes. Take second exit on roundabout 40 metres ahead to regain recommended itinerary.”
Jack took the third exit and it gave him the same shit all over again, except now he was at least 30 minutes late.
If only he could turn the fucking thing off. Or even down. But there was no way – not in a company car, at least.
Jack wasn’t worried about the time this afternoon. He didn’t have to be in Southampton for the sales conference until four. The system didn’t know that, of course, which is why it was panicking.
Now he was off the main road, he could slow down a bit and take in the beauty of the Sussex summer.
Clouds billowed peacefully in the mesmerising blue sky. Fields were emerging between the housing estates as he drew away from the motorway and onto the Downs. There were even clusters of trees that were on their way to looking like small woods.
There was a sharp right curve ahead of him now and he braked on the approach. As he did so, he noticed that while the road veered round at this point, there was still in fact a way straight ahead – a small shaded lane, whose surface was dark and dusty-looking, as if it had been undisturbed for many years. And it looked very inviting.
Jack glanced up at the System Display, but there was nothing shown on its map except the big bend in the road.
Oh what the fuck, he thought, then he braked and bumped off onto the little lane, all ruts of dried mud and chalky rocks.
Second later, the system caught up with him. “Illegal manoeuvre! You have completed an illegal manoeuvre! Please return to the recognised highway. You have completed an illegal manoevre.”
Jack tried to ignore its nagging and concentrated on negotiating a fallen branch lying across the lane. It started up again, clearly irked that he had driven it beyond the edge of its known universe. “I repeat, you have committed an illegal manoeuvre. Your manoeuvre is illegal, repeat illegal. Return to the recognised highway at once!”.
Jack sighed and stopped the car. He opened the door, leant out and picked up the first large stone he saw. Then he smashed it into the speaker time and time again until he was sure it would say no more. He drove on. The lane was climbing now. Up into the Downs. Up into the real world that had been hidden from him by the system. He wound down the windows and let the smell of thyme and the summer songs of the birds flow around him.
Soon the trees thinned out and the road surface became drier and whiter. And soon it was not enough for Jack to be seeing and breathing and hearing the Downs. He had to touch them. He stopped his car and as he walked away from it he did not look back, for he knew it did not belong there.
He walked up the lane, he climbed over a gate with a notice warning that access was totally prohibited, staggered into the centre of the grassy field and turned for the first time. He could see the woods below him, the houses he had passed, the shimmering trail of the motorway and, beyond it the coastal urban strip and then the sea.
He fell back onto the sweet, soft grass, gazed up into the azure with his hand shading his eyes from the sun and waited for the whine of sirens or the rumble of the helicopter that they would be sending out to drag him away.
Alison got the phone call the night before Jamie’s birthday.
“Good evening, is that Mrs Godwin?” enquired a female voice.
Alison confirmed this was so.
“Hello Mrs Godwin, I’m calling from Sunshine Insurance in connection with your Household and Family ‘Sit Back and Relax’ Economy Cover Package…”
“It’s come to our attention, Mrs Godwin, that earlier today you purchased 20 balloons, two packs of goody bags and a large number of assorted confectionery items… is that correct, Mrs Godwin?”
“Well, yes, it is, but how…?”
“It’s standard industry tie-in procedure, Mrs Godwin, and basically I’m just making a courtesy call to make sure you’re not planning on staging any kind of party or other celebration to mark what is, I believe, your second oldest child’s sixth birthday tomorrow – is that correct Mrs Godwin?”
“Well…” Alison spluttered, quite disorientated. “Well, yes, it’s Jamie’s birthday but we’re not doing anything unusual or dangerous – just a few of his little friends round and…”
“You are aware, Mrs Godwin, that under the terms of your package you are not insured against liability for accident or injury occurring to visitors to your home numbering more than six on any one occasion and, furthermore, that under the new Criminal Liability Act it is in fact an offence to stage any such event without having previously secured appropriate insurance cover?”
“Ummm, no. I wasn’t. I heard about something like that, now you mention it, but I never imagined…”
“You would, of course, be liable for prosecution if you went ahead with an unauthorised celebration, Mrs Godwin, and we are obliged under the Act to notify the police of your intent to commit an offence, but I can offer you the opportunity to extend your package here and now so you are covered for Jamie’s birthday tomorrow, Mrs Godwin.”
“I, err, well, how much is that, then?”
“We’d be looking, Mrs Godwin, at providing full liability cover, as required by law, for up to 20 guests, plus administration charges and a legal assistance element – that’s this phone call, Mrs Godwin – so the total would be an excess of Ł1,630 per annum plus a one-of payment of Ł199. You’ll find, Mrs Godwin, that this is a very competitive rate.
“You are, of course, completely free to acquire insurance elsewhere, but I would point out that at this late stage you may have difficulty in arranging this in time and, moreover, we would, without any evidence of insurance, be obliged to proceed with our report to the authorities.”
Alison said nothing for a moment. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply before speaking.
“Thank you very much, I quite understand the situation now. I’m afraid we are not in a financial situation where we can pay for the cover you are so kindly offering and…”
“We can arrange very reasonable credit terms, Mrs Godwin.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you can, but I’m afraid we won’t be extending the cover. We’ll have to cancel the party.”
“And yes,” she said, interrupting the woman as she began to speak again, “I do realise you will have to report me to the police and our domestic camera output will probably receive a personal 24-hour frame-by-frame scrutiny from the president himself just in case I’m lying to you. Thank you so much for your help. Goodnight!”
“Bollocks!” said Tony, when she explained it all to him. “They’re having you on. Nobody’s going to check up on us for having a kids’ party. They’re not going to look at our cameras, not for that. I say carry on. What are they going to do? Fuck all!”
But Alison wasn’t sure. How could you tell?
The sky was entirely blue, with not even a hint of cloud.
It was hot, too. He took off his leather jacket, but after a few more seconds still felt stupidly overdressed.
The warm weather had come fast.
Ten days ago he had been sheltering from frozen northern winds.
And now this.
The change had taken nature by surprise.
Nothing up here in the woods was growing yet.
The trees were all bare. No, in fact it was even stranger than that, he realised. One in twenty was still draped in the brittle dead remnants of last year’s foliage.
This could almost be autumn.
Or, he mused to himself as his boots kicked up dust where for months there had been cloying mud, this could be summer.
But a summer where nothing grew, where the sun reigned in the midday sky, the temperature soared and nature simply failed to respond, declined to grow green and lush and ripe.
The last summer.
Troublemakers could soon become a thing of the past, say scientists.
They are reporting they have now isolated the genes that make some people unruly and anti-social. The team at Cambridge University has worked for five years analysing the DNA of criminals arrested for offences such as subversion, civil incitement and democratic denial.
If the government gives its approval, the knowledge could soon be used for pre-natal genetic healing of all authorised offspring, potentially eradicating 90 percent of threats to stability, security and economic growth by the start of the next century.
Geoff! You all right, mate?
Yeah? Listen, I’ve got to… You’re not going to believe this, I tell you mate.
Have you got a minute? Yeah? Look, sit down here, you’ll like this I swear.
Ummm…. I should say before I start that this is a bit… Well, it’s between you and me, put it this way.
No, no, mate. Nothing like that. No, Christ. You know me. You’re all right there.
I just don’t want certain types of people to…
We’re all right here, aren’t we?
Gotta be, yeah.
Most of them are now, yeah. Bound to be, I suppose.
Anyway, this has just blown my mind, mate, I tell you.
What happens is this.
I’m working a drone on the old Shoreham site – you know the one. We must have started that when you were still down there.
Yeah, that’s it.
Well, it’s just a totally normal day of sifting, right?
We’re raking through the corner of this yard, right, doing particles, solids, air takes and all that. And it’s all totally fucking toxic. I mean, you know that, Geoff. The stuff that’s gone on down there. They wouldn’t even send the robots in for years.
And it’s been like that the whole time I’ve been working on it. 80 percent to 90 percent the whole time. On everything.
I mean, I don’t know why they’re even bothering with the report. The whole place is just totally…
Well, I’m just drifting the drone around a bit when I come across this lump of rock, right up in the corner, and I decide to shift it out of the way.
Don’t ask me why. I could’ve left it, no problem, but I just fancy it, right? You’ve got to do something a bit different or you just fall asleep, right?
So I get the thick arm and roll the rock out of the way.
Takes a few goes, you know, quite a big lump – 20 or 25 cem – and then I zoom in on what’s behind it. And this is the bit you won’t believe, mate.
What do you reckon I see there?
Yeah, the corner. All right, mate. No. Yeah. Very good.
No, I’ll tell you, Geoff. There is only a fucking plant growing out of the ground!
Yeah! It’s all green and sticking up right and everything. One hundred percent alive.
Yeah, I know. I couldn’t, either. Still can’t, to be honest.
But I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Oh sure, yeah, but that’s as good as. I mean, you wouldn’t catch me going anywhere near the sodding place in real life.
I mean, you’d just be fucking dead. Anything would be. Even bloody bacteria have a tough time of it down there, know what I mean?
No, they haven’t. Well, I haven’t told them, have I?
No way, mate. Sod the analysis. They’d have it out of the ground before you could blink. No way. Listen, Geoff. Do us a favour. Don’t say anything about this, will you mate? I shouldn’t have told you really. I know it’s not fair on you, but I just had to…
It’s hard to explain, but it sort of seems important to me. More important than any of the other stuff that happens.
That great fucking poisonous death-hole and this tiny little green thing hidden away in the corner – it’s like a sort of…
Oliver was twisting and turning in the tunnels, peppering the enemy with bullets as his fuel reserves sank and the probability ratio of encountering the final Riddle of Life set by the Ancient Kings dropped under 1:5 for the first time.
When a missile crept in from the side, he could detect the movement out of the very corner of his eye.
When his scooter took damage from a direct hit, he could smell the burning.
When he collided with a rock face he could feel the jarring pain shoot through his whole body.
This wasn’t just playing, he thought to himself. This was fucking living.
No sooner had this statement taken shape in his brain than everything stopped. Everything. Total darkness. Silence. No physical sensation. Except, wait a second, a faint tingling in his left leg where he may well have connected himself too tightly.
He felt for the door catch, released it and pushed upwards with both arms.
To start with, it seemed to make no difference at all.
But then he found it was not quite pitch black any more and faint shapes and outlines mapped out the room and the VR pod into which he was still very much plugged.
After he’d extricated himself, he tried the light switches, but nothing happened.
The power had clearly gone.
He moved cautiously towards the window and lifted the corner of the blind.
Dark out there, too. No street lights. No glow from any of the other houses.
Oliver had heard about this happening elsewhere. They said it was terrorists.
At this thought, his blood suddenly ran cold. Terrorists? Here? They could be in his street!
He couldn’t stop himself dashing out into the hall to make sure the front door was locked properly. When he pulled on the door, it came open.
His mouth dropped with surprise. It was well past curfew. It must have been the loss of electricity, knocking out the timer or the locking mechanism.
He leant forward gingerly and peered outside into the darkness, not daring to step too close to the threshold in case it was interpreted as an attempt to leave the premises.
To his astonishment, he could see somebody out there. Two people in fact. No, three. At least.
They didn’t seem to be terrorists, either, as he could now see more figures wandering out of their homes from both sides of the street to join them in the middle. Some were leaning back, looking up, pointing. What was up there? What was happening?
He was filled with the desire to go and find out, but was chained back by the knowledge that they’d all be caught infra-red-handed flouting the curfew.
More people! Dozens! Didn’t they care about the cam…
Oliver suddenly grabbed his boots from beside the door, shoved them on without bothering to tie the laces, pulled his jacket from the banister at the foot of the stairs and pushed the front door wide open.
He took a deep long draught of the cold clean air and stepped out onto the pavement.
There was a power cut! The cameras wouldn’t be working!
That’s why there was so many people outside, so many that even he could find the courage to break the law, just this once.
As he wandered into the road, he had the idea that it would be good to go and make contact with some of these neighbours of his that he’d hardly ever seen before, let alone spoken to.
But that notion went right out of his head as soon as he looked up to the sky.
It was not that he was exactly surprised to see the stars there – he’d made out one or two through the usual orange murk in the past.
But what he hadn’t reckoned with was to be suddenly face to face with the universe, to be toppling on the brink of a billion-mile well of infinity into which, it seemed as he involuntarily staggered backwards, he was in danger of plummeting and spinning and sinking and soaring for eternity.
The shock was that it was so real. It had always been there, behind the lights and the fug.
This was the real view from his personal window onto the galaxies amongst which they lived, a window through which he was now looking for the first time in his life.
He looked up at the stars until his neck hurt and then he looked again and some more besides, trying to swallow and digest every last second of this encounter with truth.
And it seemed he had barely started to wonder at it all when, at a stroke, it was gone.
The darkness was illuminated, the black sky turned to an orange-grey mess behind the streetlights and there was nothing to look at anymore.
Simultaneously, he heard the insanely busy whirring of the cameras, as they kicked back in and rotated and zoomed all around him, anxiously trying to lock in on all those who were violating the curfew. Oliver, like his neighbours around him, scampered quickly back indoors.
Everything was bright again in his home and the VR pod flashed a fully functional welcome across the room.
But it looked too much like a coffin and he unplugged it.
Oliver also switched off all the lights in the house.
And then he lay on the floor, eyes shut, trying to return to the place he had just been.
Sophie kept walking down the street and tried to think of something else.
She tried to make music play in her head – the kind they played on the radio in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep, not so much because Alf wasn’t there as because she knew she would never find out for sure if he would ever again fill up the vast empty coldness of their bed with the warm bulk of his presence.
They were all around her, but she tried not to look at them and she tried not to look as if she was trying not to look at them.
She knew she was trying too hard to look as if she didn’t have to try at all, to look as if she was completely at ease in a street filled with anti-terror police and armoured cars and detector drones. She had no idea why they were all here, suddenly down her road.
Nobody ever knew why they turned up. It could be an exercise. It could be a false alarm. They might have even found some terrorists, in which case there would no doubt be something on the TV, not that she hardly looked at it or even stayed in the living room during compulsory view-time.
The sun reflected off their helmets, their visors, their machinery and seemed to send piercing rays of pain directly into her head. It had been building up all day, despite the medication, and this was pushing it up to a new level.
Not long now, just ignore them. Think about eating dinner. Think about having a bath. Relax.
There was someone in front of her on the pavement. A cop with a sub-machine gun. Head lowered, she manoeuvred to pass him as quickly as possible and stepped off the kerb to make the small necessary diversion.
“Off the street!” bellowed a voice through a megaphone behind her, just feet away judging from the shrieking knife-edge volume that slashed at her headache.
It was at this point, she knew full well, that she lost it.
The pretence could not be maintained and when she lifted her face it must have most plainly betrayed the terrible anger she had been battling so hard to conceal.
It could have been the standard facial recognition software. It could have been the new brainwave monitoring crime prevention stuff that people had been talking about.
Or maybe it was just the look in her eyes as witnessed by a dozen or more police.
In any case, it was enough to have her arrested and detained indefinitely for the public’s safety in a custodial productivity camp.
She was held, in fact, only a few hundred yards from her husband Alf – although neither of them were ever aware of this amusing coincidence.
He sat and watched the screen. Watched but did not truly see, for he was waiting.
He was waiting for them to show themselves again, like they had so long ago.
He was enduring an eternity of jabbering emptiness, suffocating in a relentless tide of trivia, but he knew it would be worth it in the end.
He used to enjoy this stuff, somehow, but not any more.
Not since they’d flickered onto his screen and into his consciousness during the World Cup semi-final against the USA.
The image of their words was still seared into his visual memory, in the original giant yellow lettering.
“BELIEVE NOTHING!”” they’d told him, “QUESTION EVERYTHING!” and then, finally: “OBEY NOBODY!”
Then they’d crackled and gone. Everything carried on as before. Nobody had ever mentioned the words. Perhaps they were only meant for him.
He had to wait for them. He had to wait for them to come back and tell him what to do now.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.
He knew he had to do it again, despite the risk. Otherwise he’d go mad.
He carefully manoeuvred his way out of the bed so as not to disturb Helen.
Then he crept as silently as his creaking old limbs would take him, out onto the landing and round to what they both still referred to as Robbie’s room.
His stuff was long gone now, after all those self-deceiving years of pretending to believe that “missing in action” didn’t really mean “blown into tiny pieces of mincemeat” and that one day he might triumphantly disembark off the slow boat from China and reclaim his territory and belongings.
Only one reminder of his existence remained in the room, a faded and curled poster of that Molena chap, the footballer Robbie had liked so much when he was little.
Molena himself had signed the poster at some charity appearance – but the pen Robbie had passed him hadn’t worked properly and the autograph was an inkless impression that Robbie alone had seemed able to identify and appreciate for many years afterwards – right up, in fact, until he’d…
The thought was banished before it overwhelmed him and he focused harder on what he was doing, which was lifting the corner of the Molena poster and removing a small lump of adhesive putty that held it on the wall.
He rolled it between his fingers as he moved over to the window.
This was the difficult part. You had to place the putty over the sensor at the same time as you opened the window.
Otherwise it’d all go off and before you knew it the house would be surrounded.
As he began to open the window, his fingers slipped and for a moment it seemed he would drop the putty completely. But he recovered, held the window in a safe position and completed the operation successfully.
The moment the window was ajar, a flood of sweet fresh air filled his nose and mouth and spread deliciously through every vein in his body.
He took an even deeper breath, still standing by the window. And another.
It was hard to argue against the laws on window opening. There obviously was a huge security risk attached, with the cost to the community of any resulting call-out.
And, as they said, with today’s controlled domestic environment, there should be no need for open windows.
Plus, of course, it did adversely affect the operation and efficiency of the air conditioning, wasting his money and public resources, as well as contributing to environmental degradation.
He stood with his eyes shut, bathing in the concentrated freshness flowing straight into his face from the night outside, straight off the hills, just a dozen miles from the sea.
In a minute he’d go back to bed, leaving the window partly open behind him. By the time he reached his bedroom, the airflow would have got there too and he would be soothed and rippled into the floating sleep he so craved.
In the morning he would simply slip round here again, while Helen was in the bathroom, and seal it all up, as he had already done a dozen times before.
He turned to go and there was Helen in the doorway, eyebrows distorted into a frown of comic-book proportions.
“What are you doing?” she half-mouthed, half-whispered with such ferocity that it was clear she would have loved to have screamed the words at him at the top of her voice, were it not for the microphones and the inevitability of setting off the very alarm she wished to avoid.
He shrugged. She could see full well what he was doing.
She stepped closer and pointed furiously, indicating without ambiguity that she expected him to seal up the window he’d only just opened.
What could he do? There was no way round this. Helen would sooner report him to the authorities than risk finding herself associated with unauthorised activity.
He closed the window and, clasping the little soft ball of putty secretively in his hand, followed Helen back to the bedroom and between the sheets.
She turned her back to him in her fury and he had no idea if she was sleeping or not.
He certainly wasn’t.
The fresh air was soon exhaled from his lungs and that unbearable feeling returned.
Thoughts crept into his head that he could no longer banish.
Images of Robbie as a young lad, calling out for him, arms outstretched, but slipping ever out of reach into a black void.
Muttering voices, electric pangs of never-buried guilt, heavy traumas of despair and futility piled up on top of him as he lay there, suffocated and humiliated him.
He squeezed harder on the putty.
He couldn’t breathe.
It was freezing cold as well as pouring with rain. There was no way I could go ahead with my usual walk around the town.
And yet, what else was there? I was hardly going to hang around at the work centre, enduring 45 minutes of stagnating, airless, neon-illuminated nothingness, punctuated only by the inane babble of my fellow associates and inevitably cut short by an urgent inquiry from managerial level well before the conclusion of my allotted rest-time.
I stepped back, without thinking, under the frontage of some office or other and set off the sensors, which informed me I was trespassing on private property and if I did not vacate the area within 30 seconds I would liable to prosecution under the blah blah blah Act.
Pulling my very non-waterproof jacket closer around my neck to shut out the streams of water trying to sneak under my shirt, I knew it was going to have to be the Sunshine Centre.
Even as I entered the mall, and my chip beeped contact with the doorway monitor, I wanted to get out. The soothing, semi-audible background music, the hint of artificial coffee aroma and toxic plastic flavouring, the dead air-conditioned atmosphere that was perfect for the brain-dead conditioned consumers who breathed it in – all of this was poison to me.
I walked into a newsagent’s and confectionery chain just inside the entrance. I knew exactly what I had to do and bought one packet of gum, guaranteed 100 percent taste-free.
Then I headed for the very furthest end, to a rather obscured door tucked away beyond the lingerie and v-sex boutique.
The staircase still smelled new, even though the centre was a few years old now. Everybody used the lifts and escalators.
I went up two flights, almost to the top level, which was quieter than the others because not all the units were let.
I stepped onto the last landing before the top and sat down.
This was perfect. It was dry here; clean, quiet and at last I could do what I had been aching to do – nothing.
I would say I was thinking, but even that wouldn’t have been true. It was nothing as conscious or structured as that, nor as fanciful or entertaining as day-dreaming.
There I sat in my nothingness-bliss, tucked up in the corner of the stairwell for a length of time that was as invaluable as it was inevitably short.
The two security guards burst in through the door at the top level, which took me by surprise. I had expected to hear them coming up the steps from the bottom. They must have used the lift or the escalator, like everyone else.
Needless to say, they wanted to know what I was doing in the Sunshine Centre and, needless to say, my packet of gum did not entirely mollify them.
Too small a spend and too long ago, they told me after checking my chip.
I had no reason to still be on the premises. What was I doing hiding in here?
I told them I wasn’t hiding, but resting. I said I’d had trouble breathing because I had come all the way up the stairs.
They looked at each other from under their helmets and I knew what they were thinking. But I’m not like everyone else.
“And which unit in particular were you heading for, Sir?” asked one of them with a delighted air of supreme cunning.
I told him it was the first one out of the door – that was why I’d come up this way – save some time – couldn’t remember its name.
I got away with it. They didn’t do an on-the-spot conviction. But they took me up, in person, to the first shop at the top of the stairs, which turned out to be one of those uncategorisable abominations that sells nauseating novelties, fluffy polyester bunnies, baubles and distractions of a kind to prove for once and for all the obscene vapidity of our contemporary non-culture.
“Now if you’d care to make your purchase, Sir…” advised the same supremely scheming custodian and I scanned the price labels until I found the lowest, then grabbed whatever it was – some kind of jaunty plastic notice – paid and was on my way out of the Sunshine Centre with full security escort.
It was only when I was back outside in the rain that I pulled my purchase out of its bag and glanced at it, as a prelude to disposing of it in the nearest recycling bin.
“Tomorrow,” read the tweely decorated sign, “is the first day of the rest of your life.”
A total cliche, of course, but for some reason it seemed to speak to me personally.
I wonder what they made of it at the work centre when I never came back from lunch.
He’d had it before, of course. That feeling that everything he did was an evasion, a replacement for real life – whatever that might be.
This time it was much stronger, though. Buying a record, watching a film, eagerly logging onto a site to find some morsel of football gossip – day to day stuff but suddenly so pointless, a wheel of repetition without purpose, insight or fulfillment.
This feeling was always accompanied by a wave of depression and in the past he must have assumed a certain cause and effect. He was at a low ebb and just had to bear with it, stay afloat, until the darkness lifted and he could see clearly and contentedly again.
This time was different. This time the disappearance was less a brightening than a fading.
With horrible clarity he realised that the evaluation of his life as superficial and empty was not an aberration brought about by some minor kind of temporary mental illness, but a fleeting vision of the truth, normally quickly obscured by the distractions of routine and mundanity.
This time, however, he had not been fooled, had not pulled the wool over his own eyes to protect his sanity.
The depression was replaced by bewilderment. What now?
Knowing exactly where your kids are and what they’re doing has long been a fact of life, thanks to modern tracking technology.
But making sure they are precisely where you want them to be and behaving in the way you require is not always so straight-forward.
Now, however, a new device could at last bring mums and dads the security of complete control, even when they’re not physically at the scene.
The break-through has come about as a useful spin-off from efforts to control violent psychopaths and murderers held in Britain’s 200 penal hospitals.
With staff shortages always a problem, a way was needed of controlling prisoners’ movements and conduct, without resorting to punishment-level therapies.
Scientists came up with an ingenious modification to the common or garden personal chip, in which as well as reading and imparting information, it can also administer low-level pain.
Although the electric pulse, transmitted by microwave, is not strong enough to cause any proven lasting damage, it is sufficient to act as a powerful deterrent to any undesirable action.
Explained Jessica Smith of the National Child Welfare Association: “What this means in real terms is that if a parent sends a message to a child, ordering them to move in a westerly direction, for instance, and the child refuses to comply, or delays its compliance, it will be possible to enforce an immediate response by the administration of a shock.
“In other words, the child will have a gentle but sharp reminder of what it should be doing. By repeating the electrical admonition whenever a child moves in the incorrect direction, or fails to move at all, it is possible to effectively ‘steer’ a child in whatever direction required and at whatever speed desired.
“Their progress can, of course, be monitored in the usual way via the split-screen TV function,” she added.
As well as advancing the cause of child safety, there are obvious implications for the stability and sustainability of society as a whole and government advisers are predicting that demand will be such that the chip modification will eventually be rolled out to the adult population, with special police teams recruited to operate the system and ensure a safer future for us all.
Jake hated walking home through the town centre.
He’d spent a blissful first three days at the new school using the route he’d worked out in the summer – sharp left out of the main gate, through to the back of the estate and then along the side of the railway as far as the flyover, where he’d pick up the authorised travel plan.
But they’d found out and there’d been big trouble.
He’d been called in at school and his mum had received a rather fierce letter from the police, stating that she’d broken the law by letting him walk that way.
Jake had tried to get her off the hook. He’d told the headmaster that she had in fact instructed him to follow the directions they’d been sent by the education company and it was purely his own initiative to deviate from that.
Then it had turned out she’d written to them before the term started, telling them how the town centre made him ill and asking if he could have a different plan agreed.
They’d said no, it was against regulations and not permitted by their insurance policies.
They’d obviously decided to keep a special eye on him as a result of this exchange. That’s why they’d spotted him and that’s why they didn’t believe his account of his mum’s innocence.
So it had to be the town centre – or mum went to jail – and for the last four weeks, Jake had been refining his method of passing through it as speedily as possible.
First trick was to take it nice and gently in the approach. No need to rush yet. It was important to conserve his energy for the big sprint ahead.
He was currently coming to the end of this run-in. Up ahead was the gaudy archway, bedecked with plastic foliage and madly blinking ‘emeralds’ that marked the beginning of the Green Zone.
Jake’s timing was the same each afternoon. He waited until he caught the remotest whiff of the Green Zone aroma, took a large gulp of reasonably fresh air and rushed under the gateway and on up the street.
All the shops here were supposed to be on a Green theme in some convoluted way that invariably had more to do with the window display than the products on offer.
A green hillside in the sunshine was the state of your mind after you bought your medication here. Lush mountain forests plunging into a spectacular ravine were where you might just end up if you booked your holiday there.
Giant images of the glorious unspoilt outdoors adorned every store from discount VR to chip enhancement, from Bio Regulators to garden furniture.
Jake managed to hold his breath right as far as the corner by the burger bar.
He was cutting across here into the Red Zone, which began on his left.
This was a kind of no-man’s land and if he stood on this spot he only got low dosage of the two zones’ aromas.
On the other side of the street, however, you were assaulted by a potent blend of both of them at full strength.
It was something to with where the ducts came out of the pavements.
The one time he’d made the mistake of passing through that point, he’d felt twice as sick as usual and his eyes had swelled up instantly to the painful point where he could barely see a thing.
It had brought back traumatic memories of the first time it had happened, when his mum had been dragging him around the shops looking for Democracy Day presents.
After pausing to take a few breaths – not too deep, though – Jake was off again, rucksack bouncing on his back and long blond hair flopping rhythmically with his stride.
He didn’t need to look at the Red Zone shops to know what they were. Volcanic shoe shops. Sunset-tinged fashion lines. Giant succulent tomatoes and red peppers towered over the thin grey slices of tired pizza they were pretending to represent.
Jake’s eyes were itching. He knew if he stopped to look at them in the glass of a shop window – not that there was any chance of him doing that! – he would see they were fitting in nicely with the zonal colour-coding.
He was also being sucked down into that strange unfocused state of mind that the aromas seemed to create.
He often wondered if it had affected the grown-up shoppers the same way, as they all seemed to amble so slowly, to drift so passively and uncritically in and out of every invitation to indulge in yet another credit deduction.
Jake had to concentrate. He had to steer his path just right now, to prevent the cameras spotting anything unusual.
He allowed himself to slide gradually over to the other side of the pedestrianised road, deftly dodging the occasional bag-laden consumer as he did so.
That way it would look accidental, casual. That way they wouldn’t see that he was heading across just so he could go in… here.
Jake realised he actually enjoyed this part of what was an otherwise tiring routine, as he pushed open the unmarked door and slipped inside into the dark.
It almost made up for the nausea and the expanding, scorching tissue around his eyes.
This really was the short cut to beat all short cuts.
The town centre proprietors didn’t want you to pass too quickly through what was, in reality, a fairly small area, so they’d made the streets twist and turn in a charmingly old-fashioned manner.
If he’d carried straight on he’d have had to pass through the edge of the Blue Zone before coming back round into the Yellow Zone and then out towards his home.
This trick, though, took you straight under the shops and out into the Yellow Zone on the other side. And the cameras wouldn’t spot it, unless they were extraordinarily attentive.
He’d never have discovered the possibility himself, of course, if it hadn’t been for the occasion on which he’d seen the man in the fluorescent jacket going in one door and then, after Jake had sprinted all the way round the block, emerging slowly out of the other in front of him.
Jake went carefully down the steps, his vision impaired by the sudden darkness as well as the swelling. He could already see the right-angled slits of daylight chinking through the door at the far end – it was only a short dive through this parallel universe of gloom and throbbing unseen machinery.
A slamming noise behind him and, as he turned in alarm, another ahead of him and a flash of white light on the periphery of his vision.
At the same time the mechanical thudding became a hammering and a smashing inside his skull and he span on his heels in complete confusion.
On his left he found something new – a yawning door to a blue-glowing room from which the industrial noise levels were pounding.
He realised in a second what had happened. A vicious draught had raced through the building, slamming the two outer doors and prodding open this inner one, whose existence he had not previously registered. Jake leant partly through the door and peered inside.
It was full of ducts, huge drums and a multitude of tubes and taps. Giant fans screeched behind iron meshes, while cylinders thrust and heaved all around.
Added to the usual effects of the aromas, the noise was loud and alien enough to confound Jake’s senses still further and he wandered into the heart of the oil-stinking monster, even at the same time as he wanted, more than anything, to escape this cacophony.
So when there appeared before him a large red handle bearing the sign ‘Emergency Stop’, he did not hesitate before pulling it firmly down.
The result was instant and dramatic. The clash of metal ended forthwith and the whirring of wheels slurred down the octaves to a halt.
As the fans gave up their work, the oily smell was overwhelmed by the familiar street aromas, more concentrated than ever now and all merged together.
Pine, paprika, blueberry, primrose – conflicting fake flavours were forced into one revolting ersatz concoction, one nightmarish chemical cocktail in which any individually identifiable pseudo-scents were buried by an overriding sensation of poisonous artifice.
Jake gagged and fled. He fled in the knowledge that he had discovered the place where they pumped the scents around the town.
And he’d switched it off.
When he burst out of the door into the Yellow Zone and headed across the street, he could already tell the difference.
By the end of the road, he was confident enough to stop running and take a gulp of air.
There were still traces of the lemony, floral atmosphere that normally stifled this street, but they were bearable and beginning to fade to nothing next to new smells emerging from under the ground.
These were the real smells they didn’t want you to notice – the antiquated and failing sewage system that the drains contractor had again left off the capital budget, the hidden piles of rotting rubbish that hadn’t been collected in months by the refuse firm – a general stink of filth and neglect and decay.
Jake took a long deep breath.
His eyes felt a lot better now and his head was beginning to clear.
Mike from head office was on the line. He said he needed a meeting. Sales figures were bad. Very bad. Less than ten percent up on this time last year.
“I can do Thursday or Friday,” he told her. “Which suits you best?”
“Well,” she replied. “We’re doing the launch on Thursday – you know, for the new range – and I’ve got this Friday off, so…”
Mike wasn’t happy. He said they couldn’t delay the launch – the timing was national – so it would have to be Friday.
“But I’ve got the day off, Mike. I booked it a month ago.”
He said he was sorry but it was an emergency and she’d have to cancel.
She paused. Somehow she had always known a moment like this was going to come along.
It was probably inevitable, sooner or later.
But she had never been quite sure how she would actually react.
The papers on the counter fluttered. A breeze came through the permanently open doors.
“Sorry Mike,” she insisted. “It’s my day off.”
There was no doubt about it, thought Dr Phelps, as he surveyed the faces of the shoppers and workers through the two-way mirror that formed one whole wall of his city office.
There was no doubt about it – these people genuinely looked happy.
And, he reflected, leaning back in his black swivel chair and absent-mindedly flicking through the CCTV channels, that was in no small way down to him.
Instant diagnosis, that was the solution. Nip a problem in the bud before it even had a chance to exist. He had found the camera mounted on the outside of his office wall.
With a bit of remote control tilt and zoom, it gave him almost exactly the same view as his real one through the coated glass.
This was his favourite game.
Although his contribution to society was really the medical extension to the standard anti-terrorist facial recognition system – the software that could identify a problem through the national camera grid – Phelps was secretly prouder of his own personal ability to identify facial warning signs. After all, the computer’s knowledge was only a rationalised version of his own unerring instinct.
He put his feet up on his desk, revelling in his own invisibility to the passing crowds, and started to play.
That one was fine, and her, and the whole lot of them, laughing and giggling over their shopping. And here, amongst all the smiling, was a stern face, furrowed and focused as he weaved his way past the dawdlers.
Fine, thought Phelps. Nothing wrong with that. Motivated, busy, absorbed in his work. The smiles would come later, when he was relaxing in front of the TV, satisfied at another day well spent earning credit and career kudos.
That face was one of the basic positive models he’d programmed in. No need even to check the monitor to see if the system concurred. He knew that it had to.
More bland smiles and obvious contentment.
He moved his legs off the desk and sighed.
He felt deflated. This was no fun after all, no matter how satisfying it might be to contemplate the result of his genius.
He wanted a bit of a challenge, somebody to test his wits a little so he could demonstrate to himself yet again how astute he remained, in spite of his advancing years.
Aha – that could be one there!
The woman was walking fairly slowly towards him, weighed down with bags of shopping – electrical goods and children’s clothing by the look of it.
And she was smiling, of course.
But, Phelps noted to himself, not quite in the right way.
It wasn’t the obviously fake rictus of a smile that she was wearing and it wasn’t a telltale sadness of the eyes that gave her away.
In fact, to anyone but the most professional of experts (he ran a hand through his neat grey hair at the thought), she looked genuinely, undeniably cheerful.
Phelps sprang out of his seat and rushed to the far end of his mirror-window, waiting for her to draw alongside.
And as she did so, he accompanied her step by step, face pressed against the glass, scrutinising her every blink and reflex.
She was walking very close to his wall, just inches away, and unbeknown to her she was virtually cheek by jowl with the scientist, as he scuttled along beside her.
Finally, he turned away.
“Yes, she’s one!” he declared out loud.
He stepped briskly back to his desk and, without taking a seat, clicked to the “view analysis” function on his computer.
Sure enough, there she was.
In a sea of faces now coloured green, she was bright red and flashing.
As she was now out of easy observation from his window, Phelps watched her progress via the cameras. Shouldn’t be long now.
Yep, there they were. The van had pulled up, the security hood was on and she was whisked off out of sight, bags of shopping and all.
The first time Phelps had seen this, it had worried him a little.
But then he had rationalised that no matter how frightening the moment of rescue, the long-term benefits were undeniable.
The medication would make this woman’s life a pleasure again and ensure that the next time she passed down this street it would be with the same, genuine, smile as these other citizens.
Phelps never ceased to be amazed at the astonishing success of his scheme.
The unhappiness reduction rate had outstripped his wildest hopes and represented an extraordinary victory, proportional to the numbers of people actually medicated.
It had perplexed him initially that the mathematics did not work, that his system had achieved something that was physically impossible.
However, he soon realised he had forgotten to take on board the knock-on effect. A happy mother meant happy children. A happy boss produced happy workers.
He had initiated an unprecedented, unstoppable chain reaction of contagious well-being. Not a bad achievement for one person, he told himself. Not bad at all.
And then he poured himself a very large vodka to head off that nagging bloody suspicion that the only thing his system had really achieved was to train millions of miserable people to perfect the subtle art of pretending to look happy.
An illegal music performer from Worthing was last week jailed for two months.
Frederick Salt, aged 47, of Broadwater Road, was caught committing the crime on August 12, the town’s court heard.
Prosecutor Jenny Player played CCTV footage showing Salt walking through the town centre at about 3pm.
She added: “You will hear that he is emitting a musical performance which, I submit, is clearly identifiable as the popular recording ‘Love Daze’, property of the Klang Corporation of New China.”
Judge Somerset dismissed Salt’s defence that he was “humming” because he was in a good mood.
He told him: “You must be aware that performances of copyrighted material, even on an impromptu basis, constitute a serious criminal offence that we have a duty to punish with due severity.
“Although you claim the act involved no material gain to yourself, which is irrelevant under law in any case, you have lost sight of the considerable cost to others of your irresponsible actions, not least the admirable Klang Corporation, and the distress that may have been caused to members of the public by your blatant act of theft.”
Salt was ordered to pay £350,000 copyright compensation to Klang.
Merv and Ed had both come as those balloon-headed characters from the nu-pod adverts.
Faith was a grotesque terrorist-whore, inspired by that hideous kids’ TV series whose name eluded him, and Belinda was straight out of the last century of the old era.
Daniel was dressed as a woman. Again.
“Aw, come on Petey!” he called over as Peter (got that Daniel? Peter!) tried to slip past the 7.25 crowd to his corner of the work centre.
“How could you forget? You must have got my reminder at home last night – everyone else did.”
“I didn’t forget,” said Peter, more to himself than anything. “I just decided not to.”
They tried to make him pay anyway, but he wasn’t having it. Fee to wear fancy dress. Forfeit if you don’t.
“That’s not exactly voluntary,” he told them. “You’re not having any of my credit. Sorry. I need it for myself.”
Faith just couldn’t believe him, she really couldn’t.
Didn’t he care about Democracy? Didn’t he want those poor Papuans to have all the same rights and comforts as he did?
He told her that as far as he was concerned, it was none of his business.
“I wish you’d wake up one day and find yourself living in that horrid jungle,” she told him.
“Then you’d think yourself lucky to have a job to go to at all, without complaining about what you’re wearing at the time.
“You’re just so unbelievably selfish.”
He had more of the same from Dennis when the manager made his usual 10 o’clock tour of the floor. He even had to go back to his office with him.
“For God’s sake, Pete,” said Dennis, all earnest and concerned in his adult-sized nappy.
“You’re the only one in the building who’s not joining in.”
Peter (got that Dennis? Peter!) shrugged. “It doesn’t worry me,” he said.
Dennis pursed his lips, turned away for a second and when he span back had switched from anxiety to anger.
“It may not worry you, Pete,” he said, “but it certainly does worry me.
“Morale, Pete. that’s what it’s all about. Today is a morale-boosting day. We all do something worthwhile together. We all let our hair down a little bit – as long as the work still gets done, obviously. And we feel good about it, Pete.
“You decide not to join in. Fine. It’s your choice. We can’t make you. But what kind of message does that send out, Pete? What kind of message does that send out to your colleagues, to the junior staff, to the whole work centre?
“What does that do for morale, Pete? Eh?”
Peter smiled faintly in such a way as to make it plain he wasn’t going to be drawn into an argument. “OK, I’ve said enough,” said Dennis, waving him away.
But he clearly hadn’t.
“The trouble with you, Pete,” he said as Peter was about to open the door and leave, “is that you have a closed mind.
“A day like this should be fun, Pete, something to enjoy, to make the most of.
“But you just can’t see it, can you Pete?
“You come in here dressed the same way as every other day of the year, dull and plain and anonymous while everyone around you has made the effort to stand out a bit.
“The trouble with you Pete,” concluded Dennis, “is that you’re scared to be different.”
Near the back of the bus [ketlo] sat a pale and balding man [febid] with a screwed up frowny look out at the dusktime streams of traffic and rain [moza].
This was Simon. Hello, Simon. Didka.
Anyone could see that Simon was concentrating on something. Assuming, that is, that anyone could see him in the first place and that he didn’t look so normal that he was transparent, didn’t come across so grey [allottik] that he was as invisible to everyone else on that bus as they were to him.
It was an unplanned camouflage. His mother had never told him to proceed into the world as plainly clothed as a policeman, to comb his hair like a wet fish [rogor], to neither stride, amble or shuffle but always to pass through the city crowds with the airbrushed anonymity of an actuary [petrikonki], which may have come to mind because this was once the assumed destiny of Young Simon, before the Hospital [Orrockeva] processed him into nothing more than the third-rate agency print-out monkey [begoblani] that was Middle Aged Simon, the nobody with no face, no friends, no family [okbok], no fast forward to anything that could really merit the grandiose title of ‘future’.
Simon was working on his pronouns all the way to his stop, the sight of which penetrated his shield of total absorption to drag him out of his seat and off the bus.
He had been planning to sort out some verbs, but quickly realised the pronouns had to come first, so he could try out all the new words in their proper context.
The pronoun question was one corner he’d decided he couldn’t cut.
The verbs themselves would only have one form, that much he’d decided.
Past tense would be indicated by a preceding word which he had not yet designated – though boma kept filling in the empty space in his mind and might therefore prove to have some merit.
Still glaring at the effort of it all, frowning down beyond his feet with x-ray eyes at some underground cavern of inspiration, Simon walked up the hill towards his flat, oblivious to the golden twinkle of the setting sun on the corrugated blue watery expanse beneath the city [orticho].
There was a lot of work to be done. He had only just started. There were so many essential words that had to be found and filed in his memory. Thousands.
And then there were the relationships between the words, the structures on which the meaning would depend.
It wouldn’t ever be a proper language, of course. More like a kind of Pigeon English.
But he felt sure he could reach the point where he could construct whole sentences, using his own words. He had been tempted once or twice to jump the gun and invent specific words that he knew he would like to combine to form a particular statement.
But that would have been cheating. That would have jeopardised the whole experiment.
Simon looked up suddenly. His instinct had been right. There was somebody coming down the hill on the same side of the road [printig] as him.
He crossed over, even though the outside of the bend would take him longer, and did not let the interruption destroy the flow of his thought [mevemi].
Sometimes you had to block yourself off from everything else, allow nobody and nothing to influence your orientation. He’d learned that much at the Hospital.
Simon knew it’d be a long job. Years probably. But he was lucky in that his meaningless employment left him plenty of time and space for his own schemes.
He couldn’t stop himself fantasising about the day it was finished, when he would take it out for a trial run.
He’d imagined to start with that he’d be shouting, screaming, whooping the words in the street, firing them off, salvo after salvo, into the faces of the officials and the policemen and the doctors, who would no longer be able to condemn him for his words because they would not understand them – could not ever understand them.
But then it had dawned on him that shouting randomly in a public place was itself behaviour that would be sure to attract their wrathful censure and the microphones would surely detect in his tone the seeds of subversion and maladjustment.
So he’d decided to sing.
When the day [achola] came, he would sing out loud – to a happy and melodious tune – all the things he was not allowed to say in their language.
Everything that was stored up inside him, bursting his head with its cruel games, would break out in the gloriously beautiful form of a song [mira] that all could hear but only he would comprehend.
And then, at last, he would find out what it was that, for all these years, he’d been feeling.
The woman just couldn’t stop wailing, screaming, pleading with us – as if we were suddenly going to feel sorry for her and stop.
Some of them get like that. They can’t accept we’ve found them out.
“It was only a bloody book,” she was sobbing. Or words to that effect.
“It’s only a few little stories! What harm can that do to anyone, for pity’s sake? I haven’t even read them! You know that! I didn’t have time! I haven’t even read them!”
Then she went all still, like she’d had some moment of great insight.
“Hang on!” she said. “What was it doing in there anyway? What was the book doing in the library in the first place if anyone who got it out was going to be arrested for terrorism?”
Mick and I looked at each other.
We just laughed.
It was a dead give-away, having the extra VR set in the bedroom, the his and hers wiring mounted tastefully over our matching bedside cabinets.
There were plausible excuses, of course, or else nobody would have ever had the courage to display it all so blatantly.
Combatting insomnia. That could be one of them. Escape into a world of happy fluffy clouds, serene pink sunsets and gently lapping waves that are 99 percent guaranteed* (*check the smallprint for the legal disclaimer) to bring you within seconds of a blissful and totally natural slumber (WARNING: NEVER LEAVE DEVICE CONNECTED TO BODY WHILE ASLEEP OR UNCONSCIOUS).
Or maybe we could have made out we had nightmares and needed a little dose of nocturnal reassurance with the help of oh-so-real traditional scenes involving the inevitable log fires, grandfather clocks and loving parents (NEW! NEW! NEW! INCLUDE MEMBERS OF YOUR OWN ACTUAL FAMILY – LIVING OR PASSED AWAY!) – so long, that is, as you’ve taken the precaution of having them VR-ed before they depart this world which – I am delighted to report – is exactly what my own dear wife contrived to do, with admirable foresight, shortly before the sad conclusion of her old lady’s prolonged demise. Mumsie will never ever leave you now, little darling!
There are also the usual games, I suppose, but who’s going to want to lie in bed zapping and chasing around when they’ve got the latest Pod set up in the living room, ready to take the whole thing into a different dimension?
No, we all know what the Flexi-movement Micro-mask comfort gear is going to get used for in all but the most freaky of instances.
I don’t think they saw it at first, the couple thing.
They were spending all that energy on trying to perfect the tactile side – and not getting it anywhere near right – when the answer was right there under their scientific noses.
It wasn’t an answer at all for the lonesome frustrated singletons out there, but then since when did they matter, anyway? They would have to make do with the third-rate tactile simulation.
The big money was with the couples, the mainstream big-spending consumer elite who just have to have everything.
And, lo and behold, the product this market needed turned out to be even easier, and cheaper, to produce.
Somehow, someone discovered that in some circumstances the brain’s faith in what it’s sent along the optic nerves is twice as strong as what it experiences in any other way.
Give a child an apple, but show him a VR pear, and they’ll swear it feels like an pear, and even tastes like a pear, just because their gullible brain tells them that’s what it is.
Likewise, it’s amazing how when you run your hands over your wife’s body while under the influence of VR, the contours under your fingers match exactly with what’s coming up in front of your eyes. Your brain adjusts the sensory reality to tie in with the image.
Suddenly, your overweight middle-aged spouse has the body of a 20 year old seductress nymph from paradise.
It really works. I can testify to that, Because, yes, I did have a go on it when we first had it installed. Well, I paid for it, didn’t I?
And OK, I did like the sound of it to start with and I did explore the possibilities pretty enthusiastically for a month or two – maybe longer, if I’m honest.
Even now I can see the advantages.
My wife was hooked on it and, put bluntly, this meant she required my services in bed pretty much constantly.
It wasn’t me she was screwing in her head, but what did that matter to me? The physical outcome was better than if she had been. I certainly don’t recall that degree of energy in the days before her senses and judgement were distorted by the intervention of technology.
She certainly milked the full potential of the equipment, experimenting with programmes of both sexes. Personally I would have thought this was over-stretching the capacity of the brain to rely primarily on visual information.
But it seemed to work for her.
I could detect the presence of a female programme on her module – as confirmed later in our ritual post-coital ‘confession’ – from the unlikely areas of my anatomy in which my wife had been expressing a physical interest.
In fact, I soon realised that the whole thing worked so well for her that I didn’t need to use it any more.
I was already getting what I wanted. Her pleasure was my pleasure.
So I turned it off when she wasn’t looking or just downloaded blank programmes.
I had to keep the gear attached, of course, otherwise she would have realised and it would have spoilt it for her.
I also had to invent the female programme I’d supposedly just been projecting onto her body.
That was the hardest part of all, really, especially as she would then offer some analysis of my choice or attempt to initiate some kind of discussion around it – comparing and contrasting it with her own virtual indulgence.
On one occasion the name I plucked from the air happened to be the very same woman she had herself selected for one of her v-bi episodes.
Although I was rather entertained by the image this conjured up, it did underline a fundamental falsity in the whole procedure that was by then beginning to gnaw at me.
I found my enjoyment steadily diminishing.
Physically, the stimulation was as gratifying as ever, but emotionally I found myself confronted with a virtual void.
That was when I first had the idea of sabotaging the whole thing and, I have to admit, the delicious temptation did restore my interest in the bedtime routine for some weeks.
Eventually, though, the anticipation was replaced with impatience and I just had to get on with it.
The fateful moment followed what, coincidentally, appeared to have been a session of particular satisfaction for my wife.
I like to think now that I did her a favour, allowing her to bow out on a high note.
“That Alexander Borovich is rather nice,” she purred, as she stretched out, free of the wiring.
“Who?” I asked, not because I was interested.
“I downloaded him this afternoon,” she said. “He’s new up on the site. He was in that film we saw about the model village, the turnip collector and the giant slugs, remember?”
“Mmmm…” I said.
“So, who was it for you this time?” she asked. “Anyone interesting?”
I said nothing.
“Oh it wasn’t one of those composites again, was it?” she asked. “Thai Whore Bride 8? Blonde Beast XXX? You men are so bloody unimaginative!”
“No,” I said quietly.
“Who then?” she said, leaning over and stroking my chest. “You can tell me…”
“Someone quite different,” I said. “Who I’ve never had before.”
“Oh yeah? So what’s her name?”
“I shouldn’t tell you,” I said. “You wouldn’t want to know.”
I had to make this work.
I had to finish off this sick charade once and for all.
“Come off it!” she said. “You know I would. It’s all part of the deal. I might give her a go myself, some time, if she’s any good! Who was it, darling?”
“Your mother,” I lied. “Your sick, dying mother.”
That certainly did it.
A Shoreham man has been placed in indeterminate detention after being found guilty of a terrorist offence.
The 46 year old former college lecturer had been tracked down by police to a remote spot on the South Downs at 7pm on July 6 this year.
The man, who cannot be identified due to emergency provisions, was unable to supply proof of any legitimate purpose for his presence there.
Judge Quentin Masters said the man’s explanation that he was “going for a walk” was inadequate in terms of anti-terrorist legislation.
He added: “In these days of unparalleled danger to public safety and our democratic heritage, it is incumbent on each and every one of us to ensure that we have acquired the necessary authorisation and documentation before embarking upon any journey beyond the realm of our established daily activities.
“Not to do so is hugely irresponsible. You have, through your selfish behaviour, not only wasted an enormous amount of police and court time, but also potentially provided a smokescreen for terrorist attacks on your community – a motive you have failed to prove was not in fact the primary purpose of your expedition.”
The judge dismissed defence claims that the man had “suffered enough” through the loss of his job and the subsequent break-up of his marriage.
The terrorist was ordered to pay £250,430 costs.
“I love Robin Hood,” announced the boy when the father had finished telling him that evening’s tale from the greenwood. “Don’t you, Daddy?”
The father smiled warily. Even though he always took his son up into the attic for these story-telling sessions, to avoid the microphones, he never felt totally at ease with breaking the law in this way.
“Yes,” he replied at length.
“Daddy,” said the boy thoughtfully. “If you were alive in those days of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, would you have went into the forest and joined the Merry Men and stealed from the rich and gived to the poor?”
“Oh yes,” said the father, making the effort to be more enthusiastic. “And you could have come with me. We’d have both been there, helping Robin Hood and Little John and all the others.”
“Yes, of course. And Mummy.”
How could he have forgotten Mummy?
“Daddy?” began the boy again.
“Are there still baddies in the world today?”
“Well, yes, I suppose there are.”
“Mm?” He didn’t like the way this was heading.
“Why don’t you and me and Mummy go and live in the woods like Robin Hood and Little John and Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett and shoot the baddies with our bows and arrows and not care what any of them tries to do to get us back?”
The boy looked at the man, the man looked back at the boy and both of them knew that when the answer eventually came it would be far from satisfactory.
Alan was well and truly puzzled. This was the fourth time he’d tried to mail the report through to Josh in the projects office and the fourth time he’d phoned to find it hadn’t reached its destination.
He’d left plenty of time, as well, to allow for screening and so on.
He was convinced it was all something to do with the header. It was so hard these days to dream up a title that wasn’t pre-blocked due to previous use by spammers or v-terrorists.
So he’d changed it. Three times. To no avail.
When the fifth version also failed to get through, Alan decided enough was enough.
He printed the thing out in full – all 96 pages – and took it round to Josh in person. When Josh had made his amendments, he duly filed the report on the main system.
But he wasn’t prepared to let the matter drop. Later in the week, when he at last had a moment, he cornered one of the IT agents in the Refreshment Centre and asked him what he made of it all. This was a glitch that should not become a regular occurrence at the department and that was for sure.
Jared told him it was probably the title that had blocked it and shook his head in bemused sympathy as Alan outlined the evasive measures he had taken.
He wrote down the details and said he’d look into it for Alan and then was off, with a click of the chip sensor, as he hurriedly purchased his refreshment within the allotted time.
A couple of hours later, Alan was surprised to find Jared standing beside him when he looked up from his monthly stats.
“Could I have a private word, Alan?” he asked, so they stepped out into the area beside the fire exit where, everyone knew, the microphones didn’t work.
Alan felt rather ashamed to find himself there, but this seemed to be an emergency of some kind.
“Listen, Alan,” said Jared. “I have to know. There’s nothing, ummmm, dodgy about this email is there?” Seeing the look of mortification that took hold of the other’s face, he tried to soften the impact a little.
“… I mean, nothing out the ordinary? Nothing that might attract attention in an, ummmm, untoward sort of way, even though, of course there wasn’t anything remotely… that goes without saying…” But it was too late. The damage had been done.
Alan was straightening his back, puffing himself up and about to tell Jared how long he’d worked in the department, how reliable he had been proved to have been over that period and a few more things beside.
However, Jared saw it coming and stopped Alan short with a defensive raising of his hand.
“OK,” he said. “I know. I’ll explain. No worries.”
For a moment, he paused as if he was not going to carry on after all, but then he did anyway. “It’s been referred,” he said. “To security. Top level. No access.”
This just was not possible. Alan wanted to wake up from the nightmare into which he had suddenly been immersed.
Jared again interrupted his faltering effort to speak, telling him he had a contact ‘on the security side’ and he could find out more if Alan could swear this would not land them all in a lot of trouble. Alan was able to give him that reassurance. As if he would in any way act beyond the authorisation accredited to him! The thought was absurd!
Less than an hour later, Jared was back at Alan’s side, with a print-out.
“Here’s your problem,” he said, pointing to a marked section. Alan scanned it quickly. It was just his report.
“..studies from the Department of Social Cohesion have therefore demonstrated comprehensively the benefits of even relatively low-level exposure to the toxin and we would maintain that the path to more emotionally effective government lies in producing a more persuasive framework.”
He looked at Jared in confusion. What was the issue here?
Jared put his finger on the text. “Can’t you see Alan? Here, look!”
Alan looked again and still couldn’t see it and only when Jared spelled it out loud and clear did the words “government lies” stand out from the text as if they had been illuminated with flashing pink neon.
Alan felt a wave of relief sweep through him. So that was all it was.
Of course, the incident would not be without consequence. The same unfortunate wording, picked up by the security software, was now also filed on the main system. Together with his repeated attempts to mail it to Jack, this amounted to at least six counts of terrorist communication.
There were bound to be a few interrogation sessions to deal with, but at least it would give him a chance to reassess his pain thresholds.
And if his career inevitably suffered as a result it was a small price to pay for the necessary vigilance against terrorism in all its incarnations.
It was a case of one man’s inconvenience against the freedom and security of the entire global community, reflected Alan. When you thought about it, he was lucky his stupid error had not caused a major emergency.
But all had finished well and at the end of the day you had to laugh!
He had planned it all very carefully. He had even been up here during the day with Mrs Darby’s dog, that he’d so kindly offered to take for a walk.
The animal was a cover, of course, as in truth were the sandwiches he’d taken with him and the need to sit down for such a long break, back to the fence and one hand busily snipping away at the wire behind him, while the other continued to feed his mouth with chunks of rather stale bread.
So tonight it was so easy, as he found the flap he’d created and slipped through the outer perimeter. He knew the cameras up here had long since packed in – he’d met Phil yesterday for a coffee just to confirm – and that was the single fact that made it all so gloriously possible.
The only feasible detection, he reckoned, was by satellite, so he’d rigged up a sort of cloak of infra-red invisibility, double-lined with tin foil, to avoid becoming a blip on the screens of the control centre.
There was his chip, of course, but up here there just weren’t enough sensors to make it that accurate – they would probably not even bother flagging up the security zone on the system, it would be so prone to false alarms.
So that just left the fences and once he was out of sight of the road up from town he had plenty of time to dismantle them and walk through.
It was a blustery night. Not cold, just blowy. There was the dim glow of the moon behind the clouds. He felt good as he slipped past the second and then third barriers.
Now he came across a relic of an earlier age, a whole row of huge iron noticeboards barring his way. He flashed his torch onto one of them.
“Don’t do it!” it read. “Someone is thinking about you!” and below was the fading image of a young girl, arms held pitifully aloft and a huge tear welling in one eye.
This must have dated back 40 or 50 years, to when the suicide rates first started to go through the roof.
They thought that was the answer. A propaganda initiative against killing yourself. Adverts on the telly, countless newspaper and magazine interviews with suicides who’d changed their mind, relatives of those who hadn’t, professional psychologists listing ten early warning signs.
At the same time, suicide suddenly became a big thing in every soap opera plot on the TV and it even crept into the school syllabus.
Every time the message was unambiguous and firm. Suicide is wrong and harms us all.
He shed some light on another of the signs.
“Did you know,” it asked, “that every suicide costs the economy an estimated £2 million? Think life! Think money!”
They’d never really ever admitted that the campaign had failed. The figures had simply stopped appearing.
And instead of the special features and talk show specials, came new laws penalising those deemed guilty of facilitating or allowing, through negligence or lack of affirmative action, suicides to take place.
More cameras went into people’s homes, into public toilets and changing rooms – the final surveillance taboos were removed.
And the fences went up around places like this.
He was nearly there.
The wind blew even harder here, salty gusts knocking him backwards as he moved carefully on, torch lighting up the ground beneath as the chalk Downs became cliff edge.
Here it was. Darkness lay a metre ahead.
Planting his feet firmly as far forward as he dared, he stood up straight.
At that moment, the moon burst out from behind a furiously flying cloud and lit up the churning sea as it smashed onto the rocky shore far below him.
White illuminated gulls weaved in the blackness underneath his feet and the glorious scene blew pure exhilaration into his veins.
All around him was space, movement and joyous thundering of air.
And inside him was the glowing certainty of needing to be alive.
She had found a new loophole.
It hadn’t been a problem, to start with. Whenever she’d needed a break, she would take a walk around the offices – up to the fourth floor and back – carrying a stack of print-outs as a cover. Or linger longer than strictly necessary in the ladies’.
But then they had brought in the logging system and automatic dismissal for Dereliction of Desk Duty, so she’d had to make do with looking out of the window or doodling discreetly on scraps of paper while pretending to be talking on the phone.
The keystroke monitoring had put an end to that one. If you weren’t busy, you weren’t paid. If you slipped below a certain keystroke quota you even ended up owing the company money for the pleasure of having come in and not worked hard enough for nine hours.
They’d got her on that one, for a while at least.
But the headaches and the panic attacks had forced her to look hard for a way around it and now she’d succeeded.
For ten minutes every morning, another five or ten in the afternoon, she’d sit and type loads of lovely keystrokes – without thinking about or even looking at what she was writing.
It was nothing but gobbledegook. But that didn’t matter. She simply deleted the lot later on.
And in the meantime she had won back a precious time when her mind could drift, dream and again become her mind and only hers.
And they couldn’t stop her.
Not yet, anyway.
Though new measures from the government aim to stamp out the menace of illegal food production.
The Ministry of Safety announced that a whole range of potentially harmful substances are to be banned from shops from May 1.
These include flour, yeast and other elements used by pirates fabricating unauthorised bakery products.
Said a ministry spokesman: “These measures are purely designed to protect the health of the public.
“We would stress that this will involve no disruption to those in possession of a Food Manufacture License (FML) and they will be able to source the danger-listed products through approved wholesale outlets.
“However, it is crucial that we tackle the rising problem of unsupervised, uncertificated food production, which is often carried out in totally unsuitable, unhygienic conditions of a domestic nature.”
He said it had been clear that, despite the introduction of the licenses, large numbers of offenders had flouted the law and evaded the £5,000 annual registration fee.
Added the spokesman: “These criminals are not only putting their own families’ health at risk by their unregulated cooking activities, but are also robbing the taxpayer of millions of pounds a year.
“We are confident that our latest initiative will go a long way to rectifying this intolerable situation and reverse the alarming haemorrhaging of consumer spending from the vitally important food retail sector.”
“It’s nothing to get worried about,” said the nurse to Louisa as they entered the ward.
“It’s all very straightforward and routine, you’ll see.”
Louisa smiled and tried to project confidence, despite everything.
“All you’ll be doing, basically, is making sure they’re more or less OK or, in other words…”
She paused here, leant over to Louisa conspiratorially, and whispered in a voice that Louisa feared the old ladies would be able to hear: “… checking they’re not dead!”
“And…”, she resumed at full volume, simultaneously tugging at crooked bedcovers and nudging a bedside cabinet to its correct alignment with her knee, “… and giving them a full-body wash.”
She stopped and stared intently at Louisa.
“They have taught you how to do that, haven’t they?”
Louisa confirmed that they had.
“If,” the nurse continued, standing at the foot of one of the half dozen beds in the room, all of which were occupied. “If,” she said, “you do come across a problem, this is where to go. This little box here. First you press the red button for help – that’s before you do anything else at all, have you got that?”
“And then you can use this to access the patient’s records, OK? Look, come closer and I’ll show you properly…”
Louisa saw how the medical history of each occupant was just a touch away on the display.
She wasn’t entirely sure what use this was to her. A week’s basic course had not exactly qualified her to treat anybody for anything at all, but at least, she supposed, if a crisis did arise it would provide something to occupy her mind while assistance was on its way.
In truth, Louisa wasn’t overly worried about the washing techniques or emergency procedures. She was pretty sure she could cope with all that as well as any other 19 year old.
She was much more apprehensive about whether she would manage to find here what she had set out to discover, the quest that had compelled her to take out the £10,000 loan for the course.
“Oh,” said the nurse, who had left but had now popped her head back round the door.
“Before I forget – the Matron doesn’t like us to get the patients too, you know, excited.”
Louisa glanced around at the bedridden figures, none of whom seemed to have moved a muscle since she’d arrived. Over-excitement didn’t seem much of a risk.
“What I mean,” the nurse went on, “is that you can talk to them if they wake up, of course, but don’t encourage them. Don’t let them get carried away. Just a few polite words and you’re on to the next one – do you get my drift?”
Louis nodded in what she hoped was a cheerful manner, but in truth she felt like crying.
This was just not going to be possible. This was not going to work out the way she’d always pictured. She’d wasted all that money, all that time, all that energy…
She had to stop herself going down this route before it got the better of her. She made a mental effort to blank out her doubts and carry on with the task in hand.
The washing operation turned out to be both worse and better than she’d imagined – the positive side being the sense of closeness she gained to these frail bodies, the vulnerability and humanity that somehow made the rest of the job bearable.
Throughout, none of the patients spoke a word, none of them even presented her with the dilemma of whether or not to risk the wrath of the Matron by pursuing a conversation.
They reacted so little, offered so little other than an occasional murmur, that Louisa came to the conclusion they were all under constant and heavy medication.
With a quick glance to the doorway, she tested her hypothesis and tapped at one of the record-screens at the foot of a bed.
Scrolling past pages of background information, she came to the relevant section – a whole catalogue of ‘comfort aids’.
She had not heard of most of these, but one or two rang a bell, such as Blissax, Notirz and, particularly, Bellanoxil, the nightmare suppressant. Her own father had kept a pack of those at his bedside for years after her mother had died.
As Louisa started washing the last woman in the ward, she realised that her father had never talked to her about anything that had happened in the past – presumably to avoid stirring the same memories that he feared would invade his sleep.
She’d been too young to have talked to her mother properly and she’d never known any of her grandparents.
As a result, she had never really had much idea of what life was like in even the fairly recent past. During her teen years, she had become progressively more aware of knowing virtually nothing about the world she’d been born into – and more and more obsessed with making contact with people who could help fill the gaps.
You got a brief outline at school, but it only really went into much detail about events that had happened since Year 10 or so – the Great Exhibition, the rise of the New Knowledge, the founding of the Modern Code of Ethics.
Before that it was just Year 1 (The Triumph of Democracy) and Year 3 – the Defeat of Reaction and the great victory of J19, when the streets were at last reclaimed from the criminals and drunks who had held the country to ransom for too long.
Obviously, there was Ancient History as well – Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill and so on – but that was all so remote as to be essentially meaningless.
Moreover, it was all facts and figures and dates.
Louisa wanted to hear about real life and real people, it was as simple as that.
And this had seemed the right place to look – until you got inside and found what a sorry state these women were in.
The nurse returned just as Louisa was tidying up ready to leave. A coincidence, perhaps?
Louisa looked up and around for the cameras – they were very well concealed, if there were any.
After the women in the next ward showed no more signs of communication than those in the first, Louisa’s hopes were reduced to a bare minimum.
And then, in the third ward, it finally happened. A miracle.
“There you are, Zoe!” cried out one of the apparently sleeping women when Louisa leant over to attend to her.
“Where have you been? We were worried about you!”
She was staring at Louisa with sharp, pale blue eyes.
“I’m not Zoe,” said Louisa quietly.
The old lady seemed to have decided not to register this. Or else she just hadn’t heard her.
“Did you get there?” she carried on. “You didn’t miss it, did you?”
“Miss what?” asked Louisa. So this was what they’d meant by ‘dementia’.
“The protest, of course,” said the old lady. “The carnival, the street party.”
Louisa was trying to take this all calmly.
“When was it?” she asked.
“When? What do you mean? Today, this afternoon, June the 18th. Two o’clock on Westminster Bridge, remember? Don’t say you got the time wrong, Zoe? Weren’t you there? You didn’t miss it all, did you?”
Louisa was tempted to tell her today was November the 25th. But she had realised the old lady was in some other world, some other time.
“I… I think I might have,” she replied instead. “What was it like?”
“Like? Oh, you wouldn’t believe it Zoe, it was so brilliant. The best yet – thousands and thousands of us. We were everywhere! There was dancing, drumming, fire-eating, music… It was just….
“And there were these climbers who went right up Big Ben and unravelled this huge banner over the clock face saying – now what was it exactly? Time to Stop! That’s it! Time to Stop!
“And they stayed up there until the bells rang the hour and then they pulled off the banner and there was another one underneath and do you know what it said, that one, Zoe?”
Louisa shook her head.
“Free o’clock,” said the old lady, slowly and deliberately. “Free, with an ‘f’. It was wonderful! You should have heard the roar of the crowd. And the police – well, they couldn’t do anything!”
Louisa had been trying to imagine this outlandish scene and couldn’t help blurting out: “Didn’t they shoot you?”
“Shoot?” The old lady’s eyes opened as wide as her mouth and then she let out a shriek of laughter.
“They can’t shoot us, Zoe! What are you talking about? They’d never get away with it! Don’t you see Zoe, we’re winning! We’ve got them on the run! It’s people power, there’s nothing they can do. And when we go back tomorrow…”
She reached out and grabbed Louisa’s sleeve with her bony little fingers.
“…You are coming with us tomorrow, aren’t you Zoe? You will be there? It could be the day we’ve been waiting for. In fact, I’m sure it’s going to be. I’ve got a feeling in my bones…”
A look of pure elation had taken over the old lady’s face and her eyes twinkled with merry mischief.
There was a hiss behind Louisa and she turned round to see the nurse standing there, mouthing that the Matron was coming.
Louisa turned back to the old lady: “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve really got to get on with the…”
But the old lady’s eyes were closed and she was breathing deeply – fast asleep again in a couple of seconds.
Louisa heard footsteps approach the door and then stop for a moment, before moving off again.
She quickly knelt down and checked the display. Clark, Feronia. Feronia? Strange name! Born Park Royal, London, Year -16. One or two links to database files on childhood misdemeanor – skip those…
Fearing she would be interrupted again at any second, Louisa went straight to what she was looking for.
There it was. First admitted to Community Care in Year 3. Self-inflicted injuries to head, shoulders, arms. Bullet wound to left leg, origin unascertainable. Mental confusion. 19/06/03. June the 19th. “Tomorrow…” whispered Louisa to herself. She couldn’t wait.
However, the next day she found her routine began quite differently. On arrival she was sent straight down to the laundry to help with sorting and folding and then to the kitchens to clear up after the breakfast shift.
As the day wore on, she grew increasingly anxious that she would not be sent back to the wards.
Louisa hadn’t been able to sleep at all overnight. The sudden enormity of what had happened had set up such a swam of activity in her mind that she found herself unable to cope with it in any other way than allowing it to buzz and crawl all over her.
The snapshot of the forbidden past that Feronia had handed her was not of a kind she had been consciously looking for.
A titbit or two about everyday life, a recollection of some strange TV programme or brief summary of the major changes in fashion over the last 50 years – that would have been more than enough to make Louisa’s efforts feel worthwhile.
What Feronia had delivered was intense and unnerving.
In effect, Feronia was speaking to her direct from the past. This was no jaded old party-piece recollection dusted off once more and brought out to entertain the youth of today, but an original, immediate memory, suspended for decades and released, as if new, by some convulsion of a wrongly wired brain.
It was all so intoxicatingly real.
It no longer mattered to Louisa whether any of the other patients were likely to wake up and pass the time of day with her.
Her broad curiosity had been narrowed and focused to an extreme intensity on one subject matter only – Feronia Clark and what had happened to her on June 19 Year 3, the J19 day of victory which all the history books had told her about.
The ten minutes of her lunch break seemed to drag forever as she waited to be assigned her afternoon duties.
The good news was that she was being sent to the same wards again and the disappointing detail was that they were to be dealt with in the same order – more waiting lay ahead before she would find out.
When, at last, she had worked her way through the beds and reached Feronia’s ward, Louisa couldn’t stop glancing over at her as she progressed round the room, hoping she would wake from her mysterious slumber and speak to her.
She was tempted to take a short cut by changing the order in which she tended to the women, but decided this would not be right.
If she woke her too early, she might spoil things – interrupt the course of June 19, Year 3, as it played out in Feronia’s twilight dreams.
Louisa was trembling by the time she arrived at Feronia’s bed and reached out to touch her in the same way as she had the day before.
And, to her rapture, she elicited exactly the same response.
“There you are, Zoe!” said Feronia.
Louisa smiled back, with no thought of contradicting her this time.
“Hello Feronia,” she said.
“Where have you been?” asked Feronia. “We were worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” said Louisa. “But what about you? How did it all go?”
“Did you get there?” asked Feronia. “You didn’t miss it, did you?”
“Yes, I missed it again, I’m afraid,” said Louisa. “What happened today?”
“The protest, of course. The carnival, the street party.”
Louisa frowned slightly.
“But how did it turn out? What happened today, Feronia?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it Zoe, it was so brilliant. The best yet – thousands and thousands of us. We were everywhere! There was dancing, drumming, fire-eating, music… it was just….
“And there were these climbers who went right up Big Ben and unravelled this huge banner over the clock face saying – now what was it exactly?”
“Time to stop,” said Louisa.
“Yes, that’s it! Time to Stop!” said the old lady, then peered right into Louisa’s eyes and looked as if she could really see her for the first time.
“So you were there, Zoe! You must have been there!”
“When was this protest, Feronia?” asked Louisa, quietly but firmly, trying not to display any emotion.
“What do you mean? Today! This afternoon! June the 18th!”
There was a loud cough behind Louisa’s head and she span round to find the Matron standing sternly in the doorway.
“A word in my office, please” she said brusquely. “Follow me!”.
“I’ll just…” began Louisa, turning back towards Feronia, but the Matron snapped “Now!” at the same moment that Louisa saw the old lady had fallen back into her slumber.
She stole another look back at her as she left the ward, but there was nothing in Feronia’s face to suggest she had ever been conscious.
Her services were no longer required and she would be escorted from the premises forthwith.
As the Matron handed her over to the security team, she asked Louisa in a manner that was supposed to sound off-hand: “What was the patient talking to you about, anyway?”
“Oh,” said Louisa. “I don’t really know to be honest. Some old waffle, you know what they’re like.”
Then she added as an afterthought: “It didn’t mean anything to me.”
And when she’d passed the security checkpoints and exited through the gate in the ten-metre compound fencing, she was still smiling to herself in the knowledge that it had.
Food poisoning is now thought to have been behind a shocking epidemic of mental illness among young people in the Birmingham area last month.
Hundreds of demented adolescents defied school laws, broke afternoon curfews and mutilated their new school uniforms sponsored by the school’s corporate partners, uniGlobe plc. Police are investigating links with terrorism.
SHOULD WE BE RUNNING THIS? HOLD FOR CHECKS WITH MINISTRY. DO NOT USE WITHOUT MY EXPRESS PERMISSION. DH
EIGHT MONTHS OUT OF DATE? SHALL WE SPIKE?? G
The TV authority people knocked on the door last night.
I should have seen it coming – the detector van had been touring our estate all week.
I told them I’d disconnected the whole thing a year ago.
There was no point in lying.
They fined me, charged me double for the reconnection and put me under direct monitoring to make sure I keep up my information quota in future.
She had seen the old man in the cafe before, but had never spoken to him.
Nobody ever did. He seemed to pretty much keep to himself.
So the fellow looked up with some surprise when she addressed him.
“Sorry? I didn’t… Were you talking to me?”
“Bloody terrorists, I said.”
She gestured outside to the confusion of flashing blue lights, scientists in decontam suits and anti-terror police, fully geared up for a Class A alert.
“Hmmmm…” said the old man with a thin smile and looked back down at his newspaper.
This was actually quite encouraging. Usually people had a word or two of their own to add, a punishment they’d personally relish seeing meted out to the ubiquitous scum who caused them so much inconvenience.
She tried again: “Roads are all closed,” she said. “Traffic’s backed up for miles. Buses aren’t running. Trains are all cancelled. Nobody can get anywhere.”
“Oh dear,” said the old man, mildly.
She turned round very obviously to face outside and watch the flurry and bustle of security activity.
Then she swivelled back, leaned conspiratorially over the table and whispered, fairly loudly: “You’d have thought with all that lot on the job they’d have caught them by now, wouldn’t you?”
The old chap’s mouth fell open with surprise and he couldn’t stop himself glancing round the cafe to see if anyone was listening.
They didn’t seem to be and the music was quite loud, but he was probably also worried about microphones. She thought she ought to put him at ease on that score.
“Don’t worry about the mikes,” she said. “The ones up this end are knackered. I know the manager. She told me.”
She smiled at him. “That’s why I come in here,” she added. “Bit of privacy. Bit of a chat, off the record. Maybe buy a few grammes.”
The old man looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not really trouble.”
He shook his head, dismissing any suggestion that he had thought she was.
“And I’m not trying to pull you, honest!” she added.
He smiled and almost chuckled.
“I’m certainly happy to take your word on that,” he said.
He would be lucky to attract any attention from a woman his own age, let alone one 40 years younger, like her, with the best blonde hair money could buy and a brazen allure that more than made up for any lack of natural inner beauty.
The old man put down his newspaper and drew his chair closer to the table.
It had worked.
“What’s going on out there, anyway?” he asked her.
“Dunno. They never say, do they? They all turn up, say there’s a Class A or whatever, fuck everything up, storm in and out of people’s houses, then before you know it they’ve all buggered off again and that’s the last you hear of it.
“This is the third one I’ve seen since Christmas. One time they took some geezers off with hoods over their heads – said on the news they’d ‘cracked a major cell’ or something. But then we had the Victoria palaver last week, so you have to wonder if they got the right people after all, don’t you?”
The old man looked around the cafe again, though a little less anxiously than before.
“My dear,” he said. “You really should be a little more careful about what you say. It doesn’t do to criticise them out loud, microphones or no microphones. You’ll land yourself in big trouble and neither of us would want that, would we?”
This was so touching, she thought, He really likes me.
She decided it was safe to move the whole thing on a bit.
“I don’t say it all out loud,” she said.
“There’s some things I keep to myself. I wouldn’t tell anyone in here. Or anywhere else. I’m not that stupid.”
“Good,” said the old man. And then, after a pause, added: “That’s something it’s very important to learn as you go through life.”
She felt that special shiver run down her back. Her instinct had been right, she was sure now. He was definitely someone worth speaking to. Someone on that particular wavelength.
“Listen,” she said, leaning ever closer and lowering her voice to a barely audible level.
“I’m going to be very careful how I say this and I’m not going to take it any further, but have you ever, in your wildest and most insane moments, ever pondered over the immense stupidity and criminality of those misguided and dangerous individuals who, I have heard, actually have the effrontery to claim that there aren’t really any terrorists at all and that those who do commit atrocities are in fact fully in the pay of the government and its various agencies?”
He smiled, amused no doubt by the cunningly convoluted nature of her question.
“Yes,” he said gently. “I have often pondered over that.”
That was it! She had him! She made the signal and the snatch squads burst in simultaneously from the front and back of the cafe.
They had it all on audio, visual, the lot.
Full admission of terrorist sympathies, plus furthering the cause of terrorism by communicating those sympathies to a third party, namely herself.
Lock him up and throw away the key!
She caught a glimpse of the old man’s weak, frightened, confused little terrorist face just before they put the security hood over his head and for that moment she knew more than ever that she could never get enough of this job.
Crow called a timeless shiver into the misty silence.
Grey puddles, bare winter clearing with ancient concrete roadway silted with mud.
The beauty of monochrome crafted with subtle shades of lushest brown and blackest green.
Calm. Peace. A moment to live in.
Until the Transglobal Supajet from New Beijing murdered the morning with its decibel-deafening descent into Brighton International.
Another door to the sacred is slammed shut in our face.
The woman behind him was getting restless. But he couldn’t worry about that. The timing had to be precise if he was going to pull this off.
He pressed another couple of buttons in the wrong order to buy an extra few seconds.
The woman was shuffling around.
But he had to keep dithering here, keep looking stupid and acting inept until…
That was it! He could hear the metallic screech of brakes as the train pulled into the platform above. Suddenly he was a ticket-purchase wizard and he quickly punched in his destination, reason for travelling (football match), the game he was attending and his club membership code.
A second later he was all chipped up and he leapt towards the steps, flew up them two at a time and flung himself through the nearest open door.
As it turned out, he even had 15 seconds to spare before the doors shut and the train pulled out. He leaned back in his seat and allowed a look of exhilaration to take over his face.
It didn’t matter if people noticed. As far as they were concerned, he was just happy to have caught his train.
They weren’t to know that he’d caught a train that it had been officially impossible to catch, that the system had written off as inevitably missed by anyone keying in their details at the ticket machine after it had pulled in at Platform 2.
As far as the system was concerned, he was still waiting there for the next train, in an hour’s time. As far as the system was concerned that would give him just enough time to get up to London and across to the stadium before kick-off.
But as far he was concerned he had a whole unaccounted-for hour waiting for him at the end of his journey.
An hour in which to wander without purpose, steering clear of the obvious chip checkpoints of course. An hour in which to walk, to listen, to see.
A rare hour of unauthorised freedom.
“Thank you so much for coming in to see me, Mrs Willoughby,” said the headmaster, smiling an almost over-polite smile.
“No problem,” said Katrina. “I mean, I got the impression from your email that it was fairly urgent so I thought I’d better cancel everything and get down here as fast as I could. She is all right, isn’t she?”
“Oh yes, of course, Sonia’s fine, absolutely fine and I do apologise, Mrs Willoughby, if I gave you the impression there was any physical problem confronting us this afternoon. Far from it, ha, ha, ha…”
Mr Crowther laughed an almost over-jolly laugh.
“… in fact, I believe at the moment her whole class are having a fine old time, getting stuck in down at the wossu….”
He stopped himself and smiled indulgently at Katrina.
“…that’s the Workplace Simulation Unit, Mrs Willoughby.”
“Yes, I know, thank you,” said Katrina somewhat sharply. “We had one when I was at school.”
“Did you really?” asked the headmaster with slightly more surprise in his tone than strictly necessary.
“Well, I must say Mrs Willoughby, you certainly don’t look… that is to say…”
He had been left floundering by his moment of confusion and opted to start again.
“Yes, I think you certainly should look at what we’re doing down there now, Mrs Willoughby. The range of work experiences we can lay on for them is truly astonishing – everything from sales profiling to hygiene management, from data correction to ethical conformity enforcement. You name it, the kids have had a go at it, ha ha ha…”
Seeing that Katrina was no longer even pretending to smile at his joviality, the head moved on quickly.
“And so, Mrs Willoughby, although the matter before us today involves no physical danger to your daughter and perhaps does not therefore merit the description of ‘urgent’ which led you to respond with such admirable speed to my, errr, invitation, it does, however, involve an issue of great importance to you and your child and of great concern, I am afraid to say, to her teachers, to myself and, indeed, to our educational providers, who have already necessarily become involved in this rather upsetting incident…”
“Wha-…?” began Katrina, but the headmaster held up a hand to silence her, while passing a print-out across his desk.
“It’s easier if I show you this straight away, Mrs Willoughby. Or, rather, show it to you again. You recall this piece of work, I assume?”
Katrina scoured the text.
“Well…” she ventured.
“You see, Mrs Willoughby,” said the headmaster, “you did append your electronic signature to the document to certify that you had witnessed the completion of the homework task and therefore we are legally entitled to assume you have read it.”
His smile was almost too false to qualify as a smile at all.
Katrina took the sheet and started to read it.
It was some kind of account of life in a primitive village.
She remembered Sonia talking about having to write something, but she hadn’t asked her for any help and she had never actually read her daughter’s finished work before signing it away.
“Life was hard for peepel in those Olden Days,” said the sheet. “Everyday they were maid to dig up all the feelds and they didnt have Tellyvissun to enjoy and all they cood wach was the Hard Mud and those ants that 8 there dinner.”
Katrina stopped there. “Well,” she told the headmaster. “I can see that Sonia’s spelling is perhaps not what it should be for her age, but…”
He was shaking his head.
“No, no, no,” he said. “No, Mrs Willoughby…”
He sighed and twisted the paper round to face him, located the section he had in mind and turned it again to face the parent.
“Here,” he said, his finger still glued to the spot. “Read this, please, Mrs Willoughby.”
Katrina read out loud: “The Olden Peepel didnt have any Carrs or Musick or Pods or Chips or Freesors or…”
“Stop!” said the headmaster. “There, you see!”
Katrina looked at him with an expression so blank that his face began to boil pink with frustration. Then he remembered where he was and treated Katrina to one of his obsequious laughs – though it seemed to be intended more for his own benefit than hers.
“Mrs Willoughby, I am sure you will in fact have noticed that your daughter described a period of time in which she claimed that members of the public had, and I quote, ‘no chips’.”
Katrina frowned slightly. She wasn’t quite sure where this was all going but definitely didn’t like it. “I don’t see…” she began, but was interrupted by the headmaster who, to do him justice, had in fact drawn a breath to speak before she had started to say anything.
“And, as you will be aware, Mrs Willoughby, it is a firm part of educational law that children should not be exposed to any material that casts doubt on the acceptability, permanence or universality of chipping, or that promotes negative and anti-social mythologies of periods of time when chipping was not an unchallenged and appreciated element of the civilized social order.
“For a student to actually regurgitate such material in her own work does, of course Mrs Willoughby, represent a still more serious step into illegality and one which can, under no circumstances, be allowed to pass without a serious examination of the possible causes and potential consequences of the infringement.”
“But,” said Katrina, grasping for the right words. “But that’s just ridiculous.”
She sat staring at the headmaster in a state of shocked disbelief, unable for the moment to expand on her objection.
The headmaster, for his part, felt no need to add to his statement and sat, arms folded, with the self-satisfied air of somebody who knows he is indisputably in the right. The slightest raising of his left eyebrow acted as an invitation to Katrina to continue.
“I mean,” said Katrina. “I know we’ve all got a duty to prevent terrorist attitudes and all that, but I hardly think Sonia falls under that sort of heading.
“Firstly,” she continued, lifting one finger as an illustration. “Firstly, she’s only eight years old.
“Secondly, she didn’t say there was anything wrong with having a chip. As a matter of fact, it sounded to me like she felt sorry for them for not having a chip, in the same way as she wouldn’t want to be without a television or a pod – or any of the other stuff she mentioned…”
“No,” said Katrina and before she could be too taken aback by her own firmness, added: “No, I haven’t finished yet, I’m afraid. I do also have to say that, at the end of the day, she was right, wasn’t she?”
“Errrr… ha!” spluttered the headmaster. “This of course revolves around the crucial issue of whether the idea of being ‘right’, as you put it, is devoid of all moral or ethical considerations and in this…”
“No,” said Katrina. This was becoming a habit.
“What I mean is that she was right to say that in the days before people even had cars or freezers, they certainly weren’t fitted with chips, were they?”
The headmaster had assumed a strained, rather contorted, expression.
“Mrs Willoughby, while I would not be minded in this instance to risk offence by stating you were incorrect per se, you must appreciate that as a servant of the educational authorities, it is my duty to uphold the judgements and…”
“I don’t believe this,” she said. “You can’t say it, can you? You know full well that I’m right, that Sonia was right, but you don’t dare admit it.
“You’ve got your rules and your instructions and you’ve got to stick exactly with what they say, even when it means pretending to believe an absurd version of history that you and I both know for a fact is nothing but a lie, no matter how good the intentions behind it.
“Mr Crowther,” she added, rising from her chair.
“You really should be ashamed of yourself.”
And, with that, she marched towards the door.
The headmaster stood up as if to follow her.
“Mrs Willoughby,” he said. “Wait a minute, I beg you. There are forms to fill in. Regulations. This all has to be sorted out properly, Mrs Willoughby.”
But Katrina didn’t even turn around, just walked right out of his office, shutting the door behind her. The headmaster sprang out from behind his desk, ran over to the door, pulled it open again and saw the back of her head heading down the corridor.
“This isn’t just going to go away, Mrs Willoughby! This will all be going on your daughter’s record, you know! And yours too! There will be repercussions, Mrs Willoughby, serious repercussions!” he shouted after her, with a tone of unassailable authority that was almost a little too convincing.
His father had shaken hands with him on his way off to work in the morning.
“Good luck, Michael!” he’d said, with a man-to-man clasp.
His voice had been serious, formal, but the look in his eyes was one of great anticipation.
His mother was the same and had been so for the last couple of days.
She was as excited as a child in the run-up to Christmas. She probably hadn’t even slept last night, judging from the unearthly hour that Michael had been woken by the water running through the pipes behind his headboard.
He’d heard her on the phone yesterday, when she thought he was up in the top room.
She had somehow managed to be babbling and whispering simultaneously – it was something about reservations and special occasions.
And she’d been sorting through her posh stuff in the wardrobe, he’d noted.
She could hardly wait for him to finish his breakfast coffee.
“Well? she said at last, unable to keep quiet any longer.
“Are you going to see if they’re up there now. They said nine o’clock and it’s ten past already.”
Michael tried to smile, but it didn’t come out right and his mother noticed.
She put her hand on his shoulder.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Mikey. You’ll be OK. I know you will. Everyone gets nervous about this sort of thing, but…”
He shook his head and stood up.
“It’s not that,” he said, although he knew she wouldn’t believe him.
“I’ll do it now,” he added and headed up to his bedroom study.
As he poked around in his drawer for the print-out with the access code, he found his latest junior credit statement. It was pretty healthy, with all the birthday and holiday money he hadn’t spent – not because he was saving it for anything, but because he hadn’t got anything he particularly wanted to buy. Or the time to think about buying it – up until the exams had finished three weeks ago, anyway.
His credit would probably be even higher by this time tomorrow. That’s how his father had rewarded him last time.
And before he knew it, he’d be on the adult system, receiving monthly top-ups from whatever corporation he signed up with to take him through university.
The brochures were all in a pile, in the corner of his room, underneath a selection of discarded t-shirts.
The glossy worlds of banking, policing, investing, auditing, taxing and controlling were all waiting for him with open arms, offering anything from 20 to 30 year tie-ins (with the obligation purely on his side of the deal, of course!).
He was spoilt for choice, yet left feeling he had none at all.
Once online, he got caught up in the football results on his home page. Even the ones he didn’t care about seemed to exercise a peculiar fascination.
After a few minutes, he became aware of a creaking on the landing.
“Mum?” he called.
“Yes, dear,” she replied, all wide-eyed in his doorway.
“I haven’t done it yet,” he said. “Could you shut the door?”
She murmured something about checking the washing and backed out.
Michael sighed, made the necessary key strokes, entered his access code and found his exam results.
He’d got them all, Straight AA**s. All seven of them.
He had been through this moment – or rather this possible moment – so many times before in his mind that it was almost like stepping into a well-rehearsed routine.
He picked up his junior credit card and a few other bits of plastic, grabbed a handful of clothes from his chest of drawers and stuffed them into his school bag.
Picking it up, he realised it was a bit heavy and found the side pocket still full of revision notes and exam timetables.
He quickly pulled them out and deposited them in his wastepaper basket.
Then he had second thoughts, took them out again, ripped them in half and returned them to the bin.
“Mikey?” came his mother’s voice, still lingering outside on the landing.
He switched off the computer and, bag in hand, strode over to the door and opened it.
“Well?” said his mother a little nervously. “How did you do?”
Michael looked her straight in the eye.
“Ungraded,” he said. “Every single one. I failed the lot.”
He looked away to avoid seeing the expression that was about to take over her face and walked past her, down the stairs.
“But… I don’t… There must have been a mistake! Mikey! Mr Prentice said… Your father… Michael?”
“I’m going out,” said Michael as he left the house for the last time.
Jon sat staring at those two words, fingers posed over the keyboard. Did he dare do it or not?
The story was of the usual kind. It had one of the reporters’ names on it, but had clearly been downloaded direct from Central Information.
This one was about Rights of Way. They’d all been temporarily closed for years under emergency legislation.
But now the government had decided to completely do away with the concept, erase the term from the law books.
And the thinking behind this?
“Any notion of unauthorised access to private property is clearly in conflict with the age-old traditional rights of property owners and also incompatible with the overriding contemporary need to protect innocent men, women and children from the threat of terrorist activity,” pointed out the Minister.
That was what the story said. Those were the two words he couldn’t take his eyes off. “Pointed out”.
Total acceptance of the official line. Implicit endorsement by the paper of everything that the minister had said.
Jon wanted to change it. He was the editor, after all. There was nothing written down anywhere to say you had to use Central Information copy verbatim.
It was just that everybody did.
It was easier that way.
Jon had been in the business for 25 years and had never been in any trouble.
For the first decade or so, he’d been consciously keeping his head down, paranoid that the company would find out about that incident at university which had led to his parents being visited by the anti-terror police. None of it was supposed to be on the record, in theory – his father had seen to that.
But you never knew and from time to time Jon still expected the whole issue to be suddenly shoved back in his face, nearly 30 years on, as Exhibit A in the case for his prosecution.
After the first decade of caution, Jon’s good journalistic behaviour had been of the unthinking kind. He had been too busy bringing up his family, climbing crucial rungs on the ladder of self-promotion, to be bothered by pangs of either conscience or guilt.
Now, though, he knew he was too old to go any higher in the publishing corporation.
His children no longer wanted his time when he made it available to them and, sadly, neither did his wife.
For the first time in many years, he had found himself thinking about the stories he was publishing.
“Pointed out”. That was such an insult, such an assumption on behalf of Central Information.
He couldn’t let it go, could he? But what would happen if he changed it? Would he go the way of Tony Singh at the Herald who, according to rumour, had started receiving readers’ letters containing pro-terrorist terminology.
Not only had he failed to pass on the evidence to the authorities – an offence in itself, of course – but he had even started publishing them.
Started, because a few hours after the first one had appeared in the paper he had ‘resigned’ and never been heard of since.
Jon would have liked to have seen the letter involved, but it had disappeared from the Herald site by the time news of the controversy reached him.
This wasn’t anything like Tony’s crime, but all the same…
Jon pictured his pleasant and hard-earned home, his family, their annual fortnight in Provence, the admiring look on the faces of all the people to whom he was introduced as The Editor of The Sussex Free Press…
“Free Press!” Jon laughed at himself, replaced “pointed out” with “claimed”, uploaded the story and leant back in his executive chair waiting for the whole world to come tumbling down around him.
When the train had pulled away and left Richard alone on the deserted platform, he stood still for a full five minutes listening to the birdsong and savouring the sweet taste of woods and fields.
He was determined to make the most of every moment of his trip.
It had taken a hell of a lot of preparation, after all.
It wasn’t as if you could simply wake up one morning and decide to head off into the countryside for the day just on a whim.
In fact, even with advance planning, most city-dwellers like him would never get permission to come here alone – a tour party was the most they could hope for.
But then not everyone had an old mate in the Ministry of Nature who could plausibly get you on the books as a consultant surveyor and then get you all chipped up and authorised for a whole day’s unaccountable wandering in the forest.
“Thanks, Mark,” whispered Richard to himself as he stepped off the concrete of this tiny railway halt and onto the soil that was to be his companion for a day.
He glanced at his map and confirmed to himself where he was going, where he’d pictured himself going so many times over the last few weeks.
East, across the forest and away from the railway and the road.
East, up into the hills where hardly anyone lived anymore, where the polluted plastic world he knew crumbled away and something real and old still lived and breathed as it had for a billion years.
In the hours that followed, as Richard plunged further and further into the woodlands where even the paths were not made by man, he had the impression that he was alive for the very first time.
Rustling at his feet, scrabbling in the trees, the sight of a panicked deer bounding away from him across a clearing – this was the oxygen he had craved.
The intoxication grew as he at least reached the hills that had guided his progress on the horizon all day and vast vistas opened up beneath him, while the air seemed still fresher and more nourishing to the soul.
As he sat on the trunk of a fallen tree high up on a wooded ridge and surveyed the land, he felt that the pleasure with which he had been imbued had also reached a peak.
Finally, he had the impression that he had slipped free from whatever it was that had held his heart captive for so long.
Then he noticed it, snagged up on the very top branch of the very tallest tree in sight. A plastic bag.
Now he understood that he would never escape.
A revolutionary new type of window is to be tested at a school in Steyning, West Sussex.
While allowing normal visibility when required, the special glass can be “switched off” in an instant by a remote control held by the teacher.
Explained headteacher Joy Hall: “The idea is to combat that age-old problem of kids staring out of the window instead of focusing on their monitors.
“If a teacher notices certain pupils are not concentrating on the task in hand, or if the system reports an unauthorised drop in keystroke rates, the windows can be switched to opaque mode, thus removing a common source of distraction.
“We are hoping the trial period will result in a considerable rise in productivity.”
“Heaps of stinking corpses, grey hungry faces torn apart by fear, an air ripped by the constant screams of tortured children, gang-raped women and mutilated men.
That’s what I expected to find when I travelled down to remotest Sussex to visit one of this country’s 20 major Detention Centres.
Looking back, I guess that is also what I wanted to find.
Sounds pretty sick, but that’s what spending a day in the company of Britain’s self-styled “civil liberties” campaigners can do for you.
Don’t get me wrong – you don’t get to be the star reporter [this is presumably intended as humour – ed] for a left-leaning radical chic kinda mag like this without caring deeply – too deeply, on occasions – about other people’s rights and freedoms.
But is it just me or do those special individuals who devote their lives to expressing their views on the matter somehow always manage to ruin it for everyone?
Overegging the pudding, would be one way of putting it.
Crying wolf once too often, would be another.
But enough of my complex liberal psyche.
Let me just tell you what Kate thought about the Detention Centre when I spoke to her after the spectacularly pointless “Free the Future!” festival in Hackney in May.
Pointless because the aim of this much-heralded anarcho-extravangaza was ostensibly to ‘raise awareness’ of the issues surrounding Detention Centres and other government anti-terrorist initiatives among the general public in London and beyond.
But, so far as I could tell, there was not a single individual present – and that includes the various B-list rock celebrities, the vegan caterers, the multitude of spaced-out vaguely supportive hangers-on probably attracted to the event by the word “Free” and without the attention span (“concentration is such a, like, fascist-patriarchal concept you know, man!”) to reach the word “the”, let alone work out that “Future” was an abstract concept and not something they were going to be given in a plastic bag at the end and be able to flog off down the car boot sale…
Where was I? Oh yes, none of those present, including your sell-out corporate media representative here, left the event any more aware of the issue than when they arrived at it.
Either you were very aware indeed of all the conspiracies the government is involved in – and very aware also of your personal duty to tell every other person you meet all about them, in as much detail and at as great a length as you can manage – or you were less aware to a degree that was not going to be altered in one way or another by all the ear-bashing, poster-displaying and leaflet-thrusting that you encountered at this fun, fun festival.
Personally speaking, the only thing I became aware of was the fact that I will never willingly attend a happening of this kind again, no matter how much I may feel I sympathise with the organisers’ concerns – or some of them, at least.
I certainly hope I don’t bump into Kate again in a hurry. She won’t be pleased with this article. In fact, she’ll probably put it down as some sinister intelligence service psy-ops propaganda operation to discredit The Resistance and further the Exploitation visited upon the People by The System.
She’s that kind of person, is Kate. The kind that talks in words starting with capital letters.
Our Detention Centres are, in her words, “an Abomination, an intolerable Throwback to the darkest days of Nazism or Stalinism”.
According to Kate, it’s all about “Power running out of Control” and “a Brutal System Crushing Human Flesh Underfoot in its Quest for Profit and Growth”.
Funny that, I told her, maybe I’m completely on the wrong track here, but I thought the anti-terrorist laws were something to do with, you know, stopping terrorism.
Kate snorted and if her snort could have begun with a capital ‘S’, it would have.
“What terrorists?” she asked.
It was frankly difficult to know where to start. With the ones who killed 2,400 with poison gas on the tube five years ago, perhaps? Or the ones who blew 300 holidaymakers to hell just off the runway at Gatwick some 18 months back?
Kate was not comfortable with my response – though with the slightest talent for advance planning (“another bloody Industrial-Patriarchal Concept”) she would surely have seen it coming.
After a little bit of gentle journalistic prodding, she ventured the opinion, if you can dignify it as such, that the terrorists in question may well have been working for the British government.
Hmmm… I said. I don’t want to be rude, but I think that I may have detected a slight flaw in your analysis.
Why exactly would our government want to blow up thousands of its own citizens and carry out attacks that are estimated to have cost our economy in the region of £60 billion?
“So they could do all this, of course!” said Kate with the air of a nursery school teacher trying to explain to a particularly unintelligent three-year-old why the square block should be inserted into the box via the square hole.
“OK Kate,” I say, and take out my handkerchief to wipe the sweat from my furrowed liberal brow.
“So you are saying that the government hired a bunch of terrorists to launch a hugely expensive series of attacks on this country and its people, just to give it the excuse to build a hugely expensive network of detention centres in which to imprison these same terrorists?
“Kate,” I ask her when she’d finished babbling about “Human Rights”, “Criminalising Dissent” and “Real Democracy” (as opposed to the False Democracy of voting for governments which promise to protect your family from being murdered by terrorists), “Kate, do you think that if the general public had real ‘awareness’ of the, ummm, unconventional views you and your colleagues hold, they would be happy to see you camped out here for the weekend on public land with your wind-powered direct action video screenings and organic creches? Do you think, if they were aware of what you just told me, that they would trust you to tell them the difference between what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, about law enforcement and public security in Britain today?”
“FUCK OFF!” says Kate, most definitely using capital letters throughout.
Despite my disappointing encounter with the self-appointed prophets of totalitarian doom in Hackney, I decided to pursue the investigation of the Detention Centres issue as demanded by my soft liberal conscience.
After all, as any student of logic could tell you (and I fancy that Kate was never enrolled on that particular course), just because you don’t care much for the opposition, that doesn’t mean the thing they’re opposing is necessarily worthy of your approval.
The thought of human beings – men, women and children – caged up and tormented in giant prison camps in the countryside was not something I was finding it easy to reconcile with my trust in Britain’s attachment to justice and civilisation.
The only way to resolve this was to see for myself.
This was easier said than done, of course, and many a reporter attempting to gain access to the centres has been sent packing with a flea in the ear and a warning that they were lucky it was not a bullet, such are the sensitivities of the security sector in this time of unprecedented terrorist threat (sorry Kate, I know that’s a terribly Politically Incorrect thing to say).
Luckily, though, I was able to pull a few strings with a trusty contact at the Home Office and, following a rather in-depth personal vetting procedure (which obviously failed to unearth my prominent role in the Basingstoke Sixth Form College Anti-Capitalist Society), I found myself on the way to Titnore Detention Centre near Worthing in West Sussex.
Built in just six months at the start of last year, the centre cost just over £6 million to put together and can hold 1,500 suspects.
As our military vehicle swung off the M27 and approached the outer perimeter checkpoint, I braced myself for the worst.
Was I going to be able to cope, emotionally, with the trauma of witnessing at close hand the most inhuman of all human predicaments? Would I be able to meet any of the prisoners in the eye and ever sleep again? Would the horrors ahead destroy forever my faith in my own country and its institutions?
The photos smuggled out of various centres that had been featured prominently in Capital Kate’s Festival of Fear were still imprinted on the retina of my mind’s eye.
As we waited in what was clearly some kind of civilian staff recreation area for access to the Horror of all Horrors, I found myself, for all my usual hard-boiled cynicism, filled with a rather unpleasant sensation that I guess must have been trepidation.
So it was an anti-climax of the first order to find that we were, in fact, already in the Detention Centre itself!
A small crowd of spectators was gathered around a table tennis table as two healthy-looking young men pinged and ponged with alarming ferocity.
An ad-hoc game of football was going on behind the nearest building – though sports fans will be disappointed to learn I failed to make a note of the score.
Elsewhere, people of all ages, races and sizes were sitting or standing or leaning in the sunshine, chatting, resting or just being.
Obviously, I smelled a rat. That’s what I’m trained to do, after all.
“I wonder,” I asked cautiously of Captain X, my tour guide for the day. “Would it be possible for me to have a word with one or two of these people?”
I was mentally prepared to memorise the exact phrasing of the reply he was about to deliver – the reply that would suggest that speaking to anyone would not be entirely appropriate, or which would, more subtly, steer me towards the specific two or three so-called detainees that the government wanted me to meet, rather than random unreliables from the crowd.
I’ve read “They Must Think We’re Fucking Stupid!” as well. I’m aware of how these things work. But that reply never came.
Instead I got an “Of course, be my guest. They’re not all native English speakers, but even those that couldn’t get by when they arrived are pretty much au fait by now.”
I was so taken aback by this opportunity that I virtually leapt upon the first person that came to hand, before the Captain came to his senses and changed his mind.
She certainly was an English speaker. She even came from my old home town – Basingstoke. I think her mum may have sold me Danish pastries from the shop down the road from where I was supposed to be having my piano lessons.
“So why are you here?” was the first to-the-point question I asked Trish, after a couple of minutes of Basingstoke chat.
She got a bit embarrassed about this. Told me she’d been campaigning against voting – arguing that the whole electoral system was somehow a fraud designed to hoodwink people, rather than represent their views.
“People did mention to us that it was probably illegal now, under the new Democracy Laws, but we just didn’t take any notice. We thought we could just carry on like we always had. We didn’t realise how much everything had been changed by all this terrorism.”
When I asked Trish whether the Detention Centres were really as bad as Hitler’s concentration camps or Stalin’s gulags, I have to report that she laughed and asked who had said they were.
I told her about Kate and her festival and Trish just shrugged.
“I can understand why they’d think that,” she admitted. “I mean, I would have probably been doing something similar myself, not so long ago. And there are certainly issues around us being in here in the first place…”
I nod in sympathy and suggest it’s all a matter of finding the correct balance, in a civilised country, between individual liberties and collective well-being.
“Exactly,” says Trish. “And although we might disagree with the powers-that-be over where exactly to draw the line, we can grasp the thinking behind it. As for the conditions here, well…”
She simply looked around her, implicitly inviting me to do the same. No further comment was necessary. “But don’t you get bored?” I ask.
As if on cue, a siren sounds and everybody starts to shift themselves.
“What, in ten minutes?” smiles Trish and starts to move towards the nearest block of buildings, obviously keen to return to her work.
I walk with her, so as to prolong our conversation for another few seconds.
“I know this sounds stupid,” she adds, “and I know a lot of the people who were my friends out there will hate me for saying this, but I really feel I’m doing something useful in here. I really am contributing something tangible to the world in a way that I honestly never felt I was before.” As she disappeared, with a cheery wave, into the production block with the last of her colleagues, I was left in the deserted exercise area reflecting that this was one aspect of the scheme most cruelly twisted by the poisonous propaganda pumped out by the likes of Kate and the other wide-eyed gangsters whose real aims seem less to “free” the future than spoil it for all of us.
While they may try to frighten us with images of poor souls locked away for no good reason, to no good effect, the opposite is in fact the case.
Security issues aside, the great thing about our Detention Centres is that people aren’t wasting their time there.
They are putting in a full working week – more, in fact, as the average travel-to-work time is deducted from the calculation of their hours – to bolster the British economy.
It would clearly be outrageous to allow criminals to grow rich during their period of detention, so the cost to the employer of their ‘wages’ amounts to little more than a contribution towards keeping them alive and in a fit enough state to turn up for their shifts.
And this attractive proposition has already reaped its rewards by persuading important corporations like Globartis plc, x-3 and Lam to return to these shores a decade after they were driven away by the red-tape and unrealistic demands of a traditionally inflexible British workforce.
When I mentioned this promising development to an old leftie friend of mine, he was distinctly unimpressed.
“Slave labour,” was the phrase that kept cropping up, as he rapidly worked his way through a £35 bottle of Claret at our local brasserie.
Look, I told him. If those computer components weren’t being assembled at the Detention Centre, would they simply not be assembled at all?
No, he conceded. They would still be assembled somewhere.
And was it not likely – indeed inevitable – that they would instead be assembled by 13 year olds girls in Thailand, Indonesia or Free China?
And so, I asked, where did that leave his bleeding heart ethical objection to “slave labour”? Would he rather the victims of such exploitation were innocent children from the Far East or suspected terrorists from our own land?
If the answer was the former, I suggested, he was a racist and I would find it very difficult to believe that he, of all people, deserved that label. My friend could provide no reply with the coherence to merit it being recorded on these pages.
I should add that my absolute certainty on this point should not give the impression that my view of the Detention Centres lacks complexity.
For instance, after my brief conversation with Trish, I did wander further into the centre, unescorted, and discovered areas in a state of filth that surely should not be tolerated in a civilised society.
And there is, I feel, a strong argument that the concept of “indefinite” detention should be softened, with an allowance for genuine changes of heart and acceptance of democratic norms – except, of course in those cases where actual acts of violence or damage have been carried out.
Reform is, and always will be, a necessary and positive process with which to silence the critics, reassure the majority and, indeed, improve the efficiency of any system of organising human activity – for no such structure can ever be perfect outside of the text book.
As far as the overall rights and wrongs of the Detention Centre method itself is concerned, I would like to think that if any journalist was to cast the spotlight on them and expose them to the most fundamental of moral reassessments, then that journalist would be me.
Sometimes, I must confess, I do still harbour doubts and wonder if that is exactly what I should be doing.
But then I mentally compare the number of smiling faces I saw at the Titnore Detention Centre with the number I saw at Kate’s “Wreck the Future!” bonanza in Hackney, and I know that my judgement is sound.”
Miller glowed as he put down the plastic folder that had protected the magazine pages for so many years.
As time went by, he had realised that this had probably been the most significant of all his many journalistic interventions.
Everyone had been happy with it.
He himself had been highly satisfied with the way he had married polemic intent with raw material that was drawn from real-life reportage – well, partly anyway, but the fact that nobody could tell which bits he had made up was further evidence of his achievement.
The editor had been pleased, too. It was quite a coup – Inside a Detention Centre.
And, most importantly, Granville had been pleased. Miller had come up with just what he wanted, at the time he most needed it.
These things never appear to have much of an immediate effect. No real critic of the detention centres had been swayed by his carefully composed piece. That would never have been a realistic ambition, anyway.
And most of the general public never read the article, never saw the magazine.
Maybe even the target audience – the opinion-forming, liberal-leaning professionals who thought it their duty to care about such things – were not completely convinced by Miller’s account and many may well have come away with a few question marks in their heads over where exactly he was coming from.
But there was nothing conclusive enough to put them off completely. The article had proved sufficiently plausible to sow the seeds of doubt, blur the edges, transform the dangerous unease that had been growing with regard to the detention centres into something more like a controversy, in which the point of contention was whether there was anything wrong with this unprecedented project at all.
It had been with some satisfaction that Miller had seen the essentials of his article gain a life of their own, reappearing in print, on the internet and even in overheard conversations.
Some of this must also have been down to Granville. He was always very firm on the necessity of following through a campaign in a thorough and merciless fashion, and Miller suspected there were a lot more of Granville’s specials at large in the media world than he had been led to believe.
Be that as it may, it had been Miller’s original article, his own skill and subtlety, that had allowed a crucial weakness to open up in the opposition ranks.
Once the detention centres were accepted as part of life – albeit a “controversial” one – there was nothing to stop the next phase of consolidation from going ahead.
Miller gazed out over the city from his balcony, lost in the heady intrigues of half a century ago. It was there, in the past, that his spirit had been residing for some decades now.
That was when he had been someone, that was when he was doing something. Now he was just a tired old man, sitting back and enjoying the not inconsiderable fruits of his labour.
A surveillance drone emerged out of the blue smog and hovered close to a window in the block over the street.
A column of anti-terror police was also making its way in this direction, he noticed, and he leaned forward in anticipation of some excitement.
But it was a coincidence. They were going somewhere else. And the drone soon gave up and flew away into the haze.
Miller sighed. That was the trouble these days. The war had been won long ago and well-established security was simply not as thrilling.
He’d often been tempted to come back from retirement and try his hand again for one last time, just for nostalgia’s sake.
But who would know him now? Granville was long gone, of course. And even his successor, the young chap with the Italian-sounding name he could never remember – had apparently retired.
The only contact Miller now had with the department was automatic – the credits that had been dropping reassuringly into his bank account every month for the last god-knows-how-many years.
In any case, he mused, what exactly could he contribute to a society in which terrorism and subversion had, frankly, been defeated.
There was no need now to combat the distortions and incitements of those old-style shit-stirrers and rabble-rousers.
There was no need now for his finely honed ability to undermine the efforts of malcontents and misfits because, thanks partly to him, they simply didn’t exist.
Which in a way, Miller thought, was a bit of a…
And, before the word could fully form itself in his mind, he grabbed a Blissax from the small table at his side, downed it with a gulp of water and turned his full attention to the e-crossword.
All day long I’d been hearing other people’s conversations. There were the other guys in the kitchens, the customers out front, the radio in the taxi back into town.
Now, as I walked the last bit home along the seafront, the missing link that would save me a small fortune in accumulated long-way-round fares, there was nothing.
I could hear the waves crashing onto the shingle on my left. I could hear the sound of a motorbike up on the main road, somewhere, but there were no voices and no words to entertain me.
A big empty space had opened up in my head, ready for my innermost thoughts to rush into.
Fortunately, I had my phone on me and I rang Richie to see what he’d made of Thursday night’s Celebrity Witch Hunt.
It hadn’t been possible to slip them in straight away.
People were milling around too much. Somebody might even have spoken to him.
As a result, he’d had to listen to the tour guide’s expert explanations for the duration of the first room.
This one was purchased in such a such a year, that one had cost so much to acquire.
This artist had been made a Baron of Democracy, that one was planning a major work to mark the President’s 60th birthday.
It was while the woman was explaining that one painting of horizontal turquoise lines represented the desire of human society for stability and security that he managed to push first one, and then the other, of his earplugs into position.
He’d drifted to the back. The group were all facing forward. The guide had turned to point to some salient feature or other with her extending cane.
He could still hear that she was talking. But he couldn’t tell at all what she was saying and that was all that mattered.
As the party shuffled into the second chamber, he broke away again – though not far enough away to draw attention – and took in the paintings around him.
Now it was like it should have been. Now it was like when he was a boy and you could walk around the gallery by yourself without a guide – before the threat of terrorism had led to the updated security measures.
There were no more names, methods, reputations, commissions – only explosions of beauty and pain, shimmering seas of memory, moons of longing, creeping dark fogs of despair illuminated by tiny flickers of human hope.
Now, with the earplugs in place, he could hear what the paintings were saying to him.
The Minister for Security yesterday made an unprecedented public apology over the authorities’ failure to identify a dead body recovered a month ago.
Roger Loughton said it was clearly unacceptable in this day and age for no identity to have been established, but insisted that lessons had now been learnt.
The body of the man, thought to have been in his 90s, was found in shrubbery outside the Ministry of Security itself on October 15.
The corpse was completely naked and appeared never to have been chipped.
DNA, fingerprint, facial matching and other techniques could not establish any ID and even the latest environmental tracking analysis failed to shed any light on the man’s background, save that he is believed to have been a long-term resident of London.
Said Mr Loughton: “I know that the public have been shocked to learn that a completely unchipped, unverified individual such as this could have been lurking in their midst, especially here in the capital.
“However, I do believe this is a one-off case, regrettable though it is.
“With the range of technology now at society’s disposal – ranging from pre-natal chipping to satellite sweeping and covert verification drones – it would be virtually impossible for anyone to repeat the criminal act committed by this irresponsible relic of our more dangerous past.
“With the discovery of this body, I truly believe we have seen the demise of this country’s very last unauthorised person.”
Not so long ago, I developed a neat little trick to pull myself out of the spiritual voids that would sometimes suck me in for no particular reason and in which my everyday life seemed unbearably restricted and shallow.
Imagine, I would tell my despairing self, that you were incarcerated in some jail cell. What would you miss? What would you yearn for? What would you dream of doing on the first days of your eventual joyful release?
The answer was obvious. I would wish for everything that now seemed so plainly worthless – a coffee in the town centre, a walk to the pub, an evening at home with my partner and children.
The depression was proved absurd and invited to shrivel and self-destruct under the harsh light of reason.
But later still this self-healing device itself became the object of my deepest suspicion.
What sort of life was this that could only appear truly attractive by comparison to the most dreadful of imagined predicaments?
Was this the full extent of the freedom which I had always cherished as my birthright – the freedom to not be in prison?
Early signs of disease could be detected while you sleep, thanks to the latest exciting invention.
Scientists at the Globartis Centre for Progress in Cambridge have been working on correlations between dream patterns and health problems.
With new-generation cerebro-technology now able to record the audio-visual electric brain images that play in our heads while we slumber, a whole new field of analysis has opened up.
Monitoring of volunteers over a period of five years has enabled them to trace back tell-tale dream warnings of illnesses to a period before any symptoms, let alone a medical diagnosis, was in evidence.
Explained Dr Walter Muller of the GCP: “In one instance, a subject developed a kidney complaint during the period of observation.
“By referring back to our data on his subconscious history, we noted an abnormally high proportion of dreaming related to mountains and other high places, such as towers.
“We then picked out other volunteers with similar dream patterns and conducted rigorous tests to identify any existent or latent kidney problems.
“We were frankly amazed by the extent of the correlation and encouraged by our findings to identify and analyse other patterns.
“We are now fairly certain, for example, of a link between dreams invoking childhood memories and the onset of heart disease and there is every reason to believe that the danger of stomach cancer could be highlighted by a propensity to have dreams concerning aviation and cloud formations.
“We have no idea why these links should be there – as scientists we can merely note and exploit their occurence.”
Dr Mueller said the dream patterns would undoubtedly also prove useful in identifying otherwise undetectable mental problems, such as a potential for anti-social or terrorist behaviour.
But this breakthrough was dependent, he stressed, on government and public support for his team’s history-making efforts.
The man in the army uniform had been talking for some time now, but she could not have told you what he had said.
It was clearly important stuff, to judge from his intense expression and unblinking gaze.
Occasionally the camera moved in closer still on his authoritative stare for emphasis, or the picture changed suddenly to show maimed children, devastated cities, piles of corpses behind barbed wire fences.
Stray words drifted from the TV into her head. “Terror” – inevitably and repeatedly. “Peace.” “Security.” “Prosperity.” “Democracy.”
She wasn’t interested. She was tired. She wasn’t listening. She had tried switching channels but there was no escape. He was on everywhere.
This was Democracy Day.
Eventually it dawned on her that the man was different. He had been replaced. She wondered how long ago this had happened, as she had not been aware of any change-over.
The new man was dressed in a pin-striped suit and had a softer expression on his face.
From time to time he even attempted a smile, albeit a painfully false one.
But the longer she watched him, the more she saw similarities with the military man. His eyes remained so cold and hard whatever impression the adjoining facial muscles were trying to convey.
The footage, too, was similar. Similar, but not identical. The same crying mothers and bombed buildings, but also now some cheerful soldiers, hand-shaking dignitaries, children recovering in hospital and a small dust-covered dog, gently cradled in the arms of a large, visored, paramilitary anti-terror police officer.
And the same words kept trickling out onto the grimy threadbare carpet in front of her. Prosperity. Peace. Terror. Peace. Terror.
Soon it was time for her to vote and she instinctively reached for the remote control, her fingers poised over the buttons.
When the 30 seconds had passed, however, she found she had not pressed anything.
A female voice cut in: “Hurry up there! We know it’s hard to make up your mind between two such outstanding candidates, but we really must ask you to indicate your selection now. You have only ten seconds remaining.”
She still made no move. Not a tremor of a finger, nor a flicker of a reaction.
The time must have passed. A piece of text appeared on the screen in red lettering, which was read out by the same female voice, but in a more formal manner.
“We would remind you that it is your legal duty as a citizen to vote and it is an offence to fail to transmit your selection. Please register your choice immediately to avoid arrest and prosecution.” Still she did nothing.
Shortly a new voice spoke – that of a male – and the screen filled with tightly packed official-looking wording, which she could not make out.
“This is the Police,” said the voice. “You have committed an offence under Section 3a, paragraph 14 of the Democracy Act of Year 21. To plead guilty and receive an automatic fine of £10,000, enter the code 984 on your handset and proceed to register your vote. Failure to accept responsibility and exercise your rights will lead to the loss of those rights under the revised Terrorism Act of Year 36. Units of the anti-terror force will be dispatched to your home forthwith to secure your arrest and indefinite detention. You have been warned!”
For a second there was the slightest of movements in her right hand, as if she was about to key some buttons.
But then she suddenly lifted her fingers right away and then placed the remote control firmly on the floor, safely out of easy reach.
She folded her arms and waited.
After five minutes, the male voice returned, but only to repeat the previous warning.
The same thing occurred again and again at regular intervals.
And she, along with at least ten million others, waited to see what would happen next.
He still felt physically sick, even as he lugged the very last of the cardboard boxes out into the garden.
He started to dust himself down, but a quick glance showed him this would be a futile gesture – years’ worth of accumulated filth from his loft had been very effectively transferred from the poisonous pile to his own clothing.
He should have changed into something that didn’t matter, he realised, noting with dismay the grey grime that now seemed ingrained in his rather expensive yellow sweater.
But there was no time for all that while these things were still intact and in his possession.
If only he had reported them, handed them in, during the Amnesty.
Everyone was supposed to have gone through their entire possessions, their whole home from the back of the sofa to the garden shed. And the loft. Especially the loft.
He remembered the news reports of relieved-looking families filing into police stations with piles of illegal books, discs, magazines and photographs that they had been able to unload without fear of prosecution.
He had meant to do that himself, have a good thorough search. He’d meant to err on the safe side by handing in everything that could be considered subversive or criminal, even if it didn’t seem to meet the police criteria.
After all, he didn’t read anyway – didn’t have the time or energy with his job. And he risked losing that very job if there was ever a hint that he owned material that encouraged terrorism.
The trouble was that he hadn’t ever got as far as the loft. There was nothing there, he had told himself, grabbing the opportunity to save himself a job. Just a pile of old blankets and those bizarre lampshades the old lady had left up there when he’d bought the house.
Who’d have thought? She seemed so innocent. It must have been her. She said she’d lived there for 50 years and judging by the dates on these…
His foot prodded with disdain at the pile of disintegrating cardboard boxes.
He couldn’t bear to think about it any more and busied himself in sorting out the fire.
Having cleared a patch of ground close to the back wall, he moved one box into place and pulled it even further to pieces, spreading the contents around so they would all catch the flames.
On reflection, he pulled a dozen magazines and pamphlets completely out of the way. It wouldn’t do to burn too much at one time. People might notice. It might get out of hand.
And so, armed with a rake from his shed, he stood over the boxes while they and their contents burned.
He carefully prodded, coaxed and turned each item to ensure it was fully destroyed, reduced to a pile of unrecognisable ashes.
As he did this, separating pages deep within the fire with the rake to ensure they were obliterated, he was exposed, very briefly, to the contents of these sinister relics.
Banner headlines containing words that made him shudder, photographs of huge gatherings of criminal gangs, holding aloft profane banners and foul-mouthed signs, more pictures showing these people actually defying and denying democracy by blocking roadways, polluting civic spaces with their ugly presence, daring to appear aggrieved or surprised by the fact that the police had clearly had to use force to stop their anti-social and dangerous activity and restore peace and order.
Thank God those days were over, he said to himself, as unauthorised complainants, illegal obstructionists, economic saboteurs, wreckers, Luddites, extremists, nutcases, freaks and yobs were all obliterated for ever by his cleansing flames, along with the poisonous terrorist words they had left behind and which had been festering for so long in his own home – in fact, he realised with a nauseous lurch, just a few feet over his head while he slept at night.
He was carefully sifting and prodding and coaxing the last of the four boxes in the flames when he heard his phone ring inside the house.
Automatically, he turned and took a step towards the back door.
At the very moment that he realised it would not be a good idea to leave the fire unattended, at the very moment he was spinning on his heels to turn back and resume his watchman’s role, at that very moment a great gust of wind came out of nowhere on this still, grey day.
And, when he turned, he saw the flames leap up, he saw ashes scatter and he saw half a dozen scraps of paper leaping into the air.
He flailed with the rake, reached out with his free hand, used both feet to hold back stray fragments. He did well. There was no disorder. The situation was not out of control.
But no matter how high he stretched or jumped, no matter how much he muttered and cursed, there was nothing he could do to bring back one elusive slip of charred paper that hovered and dipped tantalisingly over his back wall, before rising yet higher and floating off towards the railway line and the housing estate beyond.
He stood back in a cold sweat.
There was no question of going after it. Trespassing on the railway was a serious offence. Besides, pursuing the escaped shred of paper would only draw the attention of the authorities. He’d be there for all to see on CCTV. They’d want to know why he’d flouted the Amnesty. Why he’d taken the law into his own hands and burnt them himself.
There was, of course, the horrible possibility that someone had seen his fire, would find the scorched remnant and would put two and two together. That was a possibility he would have to live with, through the sleepless night he knew lay ahead, but there was simply nothing he could now do that would not make things even worse.
He focused again on the rest of the documents. He could at least finish them off properly.
The small girl was playing with the snails in her garden when the shred of paper came fluttering down from the sky.
She carefully placed her two beshelled companions on the grass, off the path, before skipping over to have a look.
She picked it up and read out loud the one word that stood out from the burnt margins.
“Iberty”, she said.
“Iberty, gibberty, bibberty, fibberty.”
She loosened her grip and let it fall to the floor.
“Nibberty,” she added and for a moment thought she was going to grind the paper into the mud with the sole of her sandal, twisting it down and round until it fell apart and was absorbed into the earth.
But then, as a refreshing breeze blew her hair, she had a better idea.
She picked it up again and scampered indoors, where she placed it carefully in the delicate wooden box her grandmother had given her just before she died, and in which the girl intended to keep only those things which she felt were particularly precious and might somehow prove useful one far-off future day.
Copyright Paul Cudenec 2006 (but non-commerical use permitted)