Dark Sentinel

Goats are very cool.  And intelligent.

 

Dark Sentinel

“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”

Course the goat couldn’t answer.  It didn’t even have vocal cords.  Or a mouth.  But I had to speak to someone.  The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so.  The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”

I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.

They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident.  Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days.  Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive.  Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident.  The first was only a day.  None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again.  Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.

“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip.  I have a job offer which might interest you.”

I didn’t want a job.  However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.

“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”

“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely.  Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it.  You’ll come back a very rich man.”

“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”

“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”

I didn’t realise how desperate they were.  Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack.  Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on.  Animals, trees, cars and people.  Everything was taken to their ship.  Which then flew off again.

Why did they let it get away?  They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it.  The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork.  There was consternation.  Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.

The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures.  First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.

“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell.  In the Oort cloud.”

My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.

“It will take five years for you to get there.  But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”

Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious.  In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money.  But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years?  I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.

I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat.  Before then it had just been an organic machine to me.  The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.

“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”

Nothing.

“A goat spider squid I guess.”

Still nothing.  I decided to explain to him what he was.

“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”

I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside.  I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box.  The brain just sat there.  Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.

The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.

We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch.  Morris was mouthing off again.

“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”

“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.

“Whatever.  We’re just there to look after them.  Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”

I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion.  They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”

“They hope!”

“Yeah.  They hope.  We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”

I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.

To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed.  His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.

The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince.  The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons.  There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense.  Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option.  Goat.

Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid.  I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible.  Or, one could, well, eat it.

Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave.  Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out.  Still, there were a few ways.  If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.

The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel.  Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out.  Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks.  I felt so guilty.  In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard.  It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.

“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”

I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?

“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”

I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn.  The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary.  Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.

The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.

“This suit is disgusting.”

“It’s a living creature.  It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe.  It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active.  Trust me, you will get used to it.”

“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.

The instructor ignored us and went on.

“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks.  It is a miracle of modern gengineering.”  He paused for effect.  “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”

We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor.  They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs.  The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.

One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else.  The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons.  He couldn’t touch it.  Even with the instructor screaming at him.    He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits.  He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.

After that day we lived in the suits.  They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them.  To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day.  They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.

Howard couldn’t move.  He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense.  Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.

“Not much of a goat are you Howard?  Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape.  You need to get some exercise mate.”

He just stared at me, with his single eye.  I’d let one grow in our living cave.  Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.

I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him.  We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics.  Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all.  But we did have quite a large weight allowance.  I used mine on books.  And a ‘Go’ set.  Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me.  Five hundred books.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.

One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up.  It wasn’t really a screen of course.  Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator.  Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.

“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right?  Well you know squid can change their skin colours?”  I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots.  These will then be used to spell out messages.”

“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”

“Funny.”

Gallows humour had set in.  We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war.  In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.

“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates.  Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth.  If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc.  But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”

I miss Simmons.  At least I have Howard though.

The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.  Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby?  I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation.  It said, “Go.  Please.  Black.  4, 4.”

It didn’t make any sense!  Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8?  Where did it want me to go.

I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board.  He must have been watching when I played myself.  I often described my moves, and created characters.  I tried not to be biased in who I let win.  Now Howard wanted to play.

I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training.  I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently.  There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.

Still, was this allowed?  Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”

That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me.  We set to.

He wasn’t very good.  He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules.  But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me.  He would write, “Howard beat.  Howard beat.”

The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated.  I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.

He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did.  My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.

That’s how we lived.  Howard and I.  Our dark little hole was home.  It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial.  It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room.  But it was ours.  The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner.  We had lots of food supplies.  Much more than I had expected.  They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man.  Now I wasn’t sure.

The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe.  Instead it felt like comfort.  Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars.  They were so bright, and beautiful.  They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.

Time rolled on.  Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally.  We made quite the odd couple.  I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read.  Some 423 books.

Had Earth forgotten me?  Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle?  I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.

This morning my vigil ended.  Howard had a message.

“Multiple objects sighted.  Angle 134.34 to 156.02.  No Go.”

No Go indeed.  I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides.  I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out.  Possibly one book cycle ago.  I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness.  I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright.  I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide.  It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.

The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight.  Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black.  There was nothing.  I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star.  Whatever was approaching it was large.

Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me?  I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job.  I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.

I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining.   In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes.  Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul.  This was it.  This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.

I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details.  This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids.  I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords.    It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again.  Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me.  It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.

I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.

“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now.  Drift after collision.  Many kms per book cycle.”

Disaster.  How could I warn Earth?  I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair.  Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me?  He was clearly intelligent.

“How do we tell Earth Howard?”

“Tell what?”

“That the invaders are coming.”

Silence.  I tried asking the question in different ways.  Eventually he answered.

“They know.  Ships came from Earth.  Go?”

###

 

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Magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

And seven for a secret which can never be told.

 

Boris flew to the meeting tree looking somewhat bedraggled, and down in the feathers.  He’d clearly had a bad day.

“Hey Boris.  Tough day?”

“Oh, hi Tony, you said it.”

Now my job as the Magpie barman is to serve the drinks and listen to the stories.  Occasionally I offer some advice, but my days of flying Informational Magics is long gone, and most of the chicks they send out these days seem to ignore me.

I lined up a stiff drink for Boris and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It was clear he didn’t, but then he shrugged his wings and took a long drink of his drink and said, “You know how some days if it can go wrong?”

“Oh yes.  Saw a single one today did you?”

I was joking of course, Magpie magic doesn’t work on Magpies, something I’ve always thought is vaguely ironic.

“Ha, almost as if I had done.  My day started with an easy one.  I needed to get a farmer to see me.  He’s going to get some bad news from his girlfriend it seems.  Farmers are easy I thought to myself, wait until they’re out into a field, and then, you know, pop up.  He conveniently headed out, and so I flew along.  Nothing, he was looking at his phone I think.”

“Bloody things have made it harder than in my day, and no mistake.”

“You said it Tony.  You couldn’t line me up another?”

I watched him finish the first as I poured the second.  I hoped he wasn’t going to drink too much, I’d struggle to carry him off this tree at the best of times, but my right wing has been giving me shooting pains when I extend it recently.

“Where was I?”

“Farmer.  Phone.”

“Yeah, so I had to get over the other side of town for my next job, and I was running out of time, so I popped up again.  The farmer looks up.”

“Job done?”

“I hadn’t spotted him, but Douglas was flying across the field, on his way to his first gig of the day.  Blam, we’ve now given the farmer Joy.”

“Oh, well, could be worse.”

“I know, but now I’m the one who has to go and give his girlfriend Sorrow, because her dream job evaporated and she’s staying with her farmer boyfriend.  Sucks for her.”

“Mmm.”

“Now of course, I’m running late, so I wing it straight over.  I reckon I can get away with it, so I cut over the Grey woods.”

“The ones with the footpath?”

“Yeah.”

“Risky.”

“At that time of day I figure it’ll be fine.  I was wrong.  A couple going for a mid-morning walk.  Blam they get some Sorrow.  Their car engine’s blown.  Then a man walking his dog, more Sorrow.  He’s going to get an unexpected, and wrong, gas bill, but it’ll take three months for him to clear it up.”

“Ouch.  You speak to Control about doing some reverse work?”

“You seen them recently?  Something strange is going on, they’re planning a load of Secret raids.”

“Awful tricky to pull off they are.”

It’s difficult to get seven of us in one place where a human can see, and count, all of us before we have to move on.  Anything getting in the way can turn it into something else, and I hated doing them when I was still in the field.

I went on, “I was involved in one of those once, we ended up giving three Silvers and one Gold before we hit it properly.  Control was mighty angry.”

“Well they’re so angry already, I wasn’t going to ask them to allow three Joys just to fix my mess up.”

“Fair.”

“I get to the meeting place, expecting Steph and Jon, and you know what?”

“What?”

“Bloody Yanis turns up.”

“Oh he’s alright…”

“Maybe, but suddenly the Girl we’re announcing turns into a Boy.  Then while I’m remonstrating with him another couple come along.  Now by this point Jon’s off, but they get a Girl, and they weren’t expecting anything if you know what I mean.”

“A bad day and a half.  Have another.”

His second had gone almost as fast as the first, but he sipped the third a bit more cautiously.

“Next few gigs went ok, but I couldn’t help feeling the day wasn’t done with me yet.”

“No?”

“No.  My last couple of gigs were over by Westfield farm, you know at the edge of our territory.”

“Bordering the Greenlark mob?”

“Yeah.  Bloody amateurs.”

“So I hear.”

I didn’t tell him my mother had been a Greenlark.  When I was a chick we’d been on best of terms with them, but last couple of years there’d been some bad blood.  Accusations of stealing of missions and suchlike.

“Well I was there to do a Sorrow and a Joy, with Steph again.  I like her, real professional.  Always on time, flies low, can disappear into anything.  Easy to work with.”

He was smiling in such a way that I imagined he wanted a little more time with Steph.  He was quiet for a bit.

“You were saying…”

“Yeah, sorry.  Steph.  She turns up as expected, and we’re about to do the double.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, the dossier on these two said they were inseparable, but that the man always looked round to the right when they got into a new field.  Steph and I were prepped.  The humans climbed into the field and we popped up.  At the same time some bloody Greenlarks are having a fight with a murder on the border of the land.  All sorts of squawking and whatnot.”

“Not good.”

“Not good?  Disaster.  She gets the Joy and he gets the Sorrow.  Her premium bond numbers come in and his ankle gives way.  Doesn’t seem fair.”

“It’s not about fair.  At least they didn’t see the Greenlarks.”

“True.  And I think Steph blamed me, though she didn’t say anything.  Just a bit off.”

“I’m sure she understands, we’ve all been there.”

At that point one of Control’s messengers turned up.

“Oi, Boris, get over to Control.  They need you for a Secret.”

“I’ll be there in two ticks.”

The messenger looked like he was going to argue, but then just flapped off, making a deliberate show of his whites.

“Bloody showoffs, think they’re better than us cos they do the planning.”

“It’s a tough job.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Not sure what the point of a Secret is, I mean they never tell us what it is anyway.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that’s the point.”

Boris slurped the last of his drink and then headed off, waving his wings a little unsteadily.

I watched him depart and thanked my stars I wasn’t out there anymore.  I’d enjoyed spreading Joy and announcing the little ones.  But the Sorrow was always hard.  I polished up the glasses and waited for my next customer.

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Watchers

Outsourcing has been much on my mind, and given the way the world is evolving, this may become more relevant…

 

Watchers

“Welcome to Singapore Mr Smythe, is this your first trip?”

“Ah thanks, no.  I’ve been here a couple of times.”

“Excellent, if you’ll just follow me, we have a car waiting for us.”

Smythe followed the man, PK Kumar, through the glass doors of Changi Airport’s arrivals area and out into the smothering April heat.  He could never decide which was worse, the heat or the humidity, either way he immediately felt even more sweaty and dirty than he had after landing from his twelve hour flight.  The car was waiting, and stepping in Smythe felt blessed cool air.  He sat down and waited.

After half a minute or so PK got into the car as well, and almost as soon as he’d closed the door the car pulled off.

“We’ve taken the liberty of booking you into the Ritz Carlton, a truly wonderful hotel.”

“Good, I’ve stayed there before.”

“Indeed, did you like it?”

“Yes.”

Smythe was not feeling very talkative, there was grit in his eyes and wool in his brain.  He was also a little annoyed, he recognised this tactic.  PK was a representative of Technology Control Systems, the company he was here to negotiate with.  They should have just sent the driver, but by sending a clearly mid-level manager they were upping the stakes a little.  The idea would be that in his weakened state he might let slip a few useful bits of information which would undermine his position.

“Mr Smythe, we’ve arranged your first meeting for 1100 tomorrow, as we thought this would give you time to settle in.”

“Thanks.”

His short answers were clearly starting to irritate PK, but the man was smooth, he’d give him that.

“I did wonder if you would appreciate company for dinner tonight, or indeed any other night?”

It was fairly clear what ‘company’ PK meant, and it would be another form of leverage.  It seemed highly likely that any girl who was provided would be an employee, of some sort, in one of TechCon’s many enterprises.

“I’ll be fine.”

That was the last gambit, and the rest of the short journey passed in silence, if not entirely comfortably.  At the hotel his bags were taken out of the car by the doorman, and realising he had a chance to ditch PK he held out his hand.

“Good to meet you Mr Kumar, until tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes, and you Mr Smythe.  The car will be here at 1030.”

“Thanks.”

Without a glance back Smythe strode into the hotel.  The change from cold through hot and back to cold again always made him feel a little strange, almost like he was getting ill, but he shook it off and headed to check-in.

An hour later he was relaxing in the large bathtub, looking out over Singapore and towards the sea.  There was a knock at the door, and he shouted, “It’s open.”

His room service had arrived.  She swayed into the bathroom and shed her robe, and slipped into the bath with him.  When he said he’d be fine, he meant he knew how to provide for his own entertainment.

#

The next morning he had breakfast sent up, and after a bit more fun he sent his room service away, with some extra cash and a confirmation of a return that evening.  He felt much sharper today, and he dressed appropriately.  He knew it was going to be tricky to get the services they needed within the budget he had, but he was confident he could achieve it.

The car delivered him to another glass-clad building, but instead of dropping him at the front it went underneath the building.  When he got out of the car, bracing for the wall of heat, it was actually still fairly cool.  He noticed there were blowers either side.  Whenever someone arrived the blowers would be triggered a few moments before they arrived to provide a cool channel for them to walk through.  He nodded appreciatively and entered the door.

“Good morning Mr Smythe.”

“Good morning Mr Kumar, I must apologise if I was a little short yesterday.  I was somewhat tired after my flight.”

There was a slight pause before PK responded, “Of course, not a problem, and please do call me PK.  I’m one of several Kumars here, but the only PK.  So far.”

Smythe smiled.  PK led him to a conference room.  It could have been anywhere, and Smythe wondered why he’d had to fly to Singapore to be treated to the same grey walls, wood veneer table and strangely uncomfortable chairs he could have experienced in the London office.

There were five people in the room waiting for him.  PK introduced them, but Smythe concentrated on the two men in the centre, Kalyan Rai and Sunil Rao, who were clearly the decision makers.

“Mr Smythe, welcome to our offices, can we show you the presentation of the services we’re offering…”

“No, I’ve seen the presentations, and I’m aware of the services.  My employers are keen that we get the right level of service for the price.  Our intention is to start with a limited contract, and then we will review again before full roll out.”

His intention was to put them off their game by cutting through the formality, but Kalyan Rai was unfazed.

“It is much easier when cards are on the table.  We will be honest, a yearlong limited contract is not a priority for us.  It represents a large investment for an uncertain return, after all you might choose to go with one of our competitors.  We want to know what would be required for the first phase of a full roll out.”

Smythe had been worried that this was where it might go.  Head office had given him authority to agree to a first phase, but he was very uncomfortable with the responsibility.  The sums involved were large, and if anything went wrong he was quite sure he’d be hung out to dry.

“Are you capable of running a first phase?”

“Of course.”

He needed some evidence from them, what could he ask for?  Before he could think of something Sunil Rao said, “Mr Smythe, can we demonstrate the efforts of one of our teams?”  He gestured towards the screen on the wall.

“Please.”  It would give him time to think.

“This is the team.”

The screen showed four people, two men and two women.  They were all smiling rather cheesily.

“They have been tasked with eight subjects for the last three months.  Here is their report on one of the subjects.  They used only data feeds available within the contract, no additional cameras or physical devices were used, so this is a like for like representation.”

Photos started to flash up on screen with commentary.  There was a picture of Smythe in his flat.  Then leaving, getting a cab.

“The fare was fourteen pounds fifty and the subject added a fifty pence tip.”

He sounded so tight.

“The subject was two hours and seventeen minutes early for his flight.  He spent an hour of this in the bar where he drank seven gin and tonics and spoke to five other passengers, all female.  One of them appeared to give him her number, but a separate check confirmed that this was in fact the number to her ex-boyfriend.  Further details on both the woman and her ex-boyfriend have been stored.”

The film continued, at first Smythe was amused, and then bored.  When they started showing footage of his activities the night before he became annoyed.

“Now really, this is unreasonable, you have no right…”

“Actually Mr Smythe, we checked with your manager at the ministry, and he was happy for us to track you as a test run.  He asked that we send him the full file once we’d shared it with you.”

Smythe nearly choked.  It was unlikely the ministry would be happy with where he was staying, but they’d have to do something about his use of professional entertainment.  These bastards had him, and they knew it.

“Fine.  That’s all very well, but that doesn’t prove you can do the job.”

The men around him just smiled, and the screen in front of him split into eight.  The same type of analysis was shown of seven other people, including his brother, his parents, his next door neighbour and two old school friends.  The last person was someone totally unknown to him.

“These were all tracked by this one team.  They were operating at five percent capacity.  Here are the cost estimates.”

Sunil Rao pushed a folder over to Smythe, he started to read it.  At first he was still numb from the implied threat, but then as he read further he became more confident that this might actually work out.

“You can really commit to these prices?”

“Yes.”

“Where are your personnel based?”

“Eighty percent are in India, that’s how we keep our costs down.  Some are here, and some will need to be in your offices, to ensure access to the various data feeds, and help manage the overall contract.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“One of our sister companies provides the IT systems for most of your police and internal security forces, so we will be able to automatically pull in any additional feeds those groups make available.  We will also route all suspicious activity, with appropriate evidence, to those groups.  That comes without additional cost.”

Despite himself Smythe nodded appreciatively.  Then trying to get the upper hand, he asked another question.

“Phase one anticipates eighty percent coverage of high risk subjects, with nearly thirty percent coverage of the population.”

“We are aware of that.  At this point we have enough staff to take on half of that, and can ramp up to full capacity within six months.”

The numbers had started to overwhelm Smythe.

“But, but that means you have fifty thousand trained people already waiting?”

“Yes.  We’re committed to this contract.  If you approve it, and the subject names are passed through to us, we can provide the first detailed reports within six weeks, and then every week thereafter we will provide updates.”

Smythe marvelled.  Back at Security HQ he’d wondered how they’d ever track three million people in phase one, let alone the rest.  They’d always joked that they’d need to employ half the population to watch the other half.  The solution was obvious, instead they’d use someone else’s population to watch the whole of theirs.  He was confident that after phase one they’d expand it, and very soon they’d have the country covered.

He smiled, and said, “Mr Rao, this seems excellent, however there is the little matter of my personal files?”

“I’m sure we can edit them appropriately.”

“In that case, I have the authority and if you can provide the contracts I’ll be happy to sign them.”

###

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Outsourcing

I think we all outsource bits of our lives, and I wondered how far it might go?

 

Outsourcing

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for our guest of honour, Mr James Forbes, the leading light of the modern era.”

The room erupted in cheers and clapping, and a tall, austere looking man walked to the podium.  His measured stride ensured he reached the stage while the applause was still loud, and was positioned behind the podium just as it was starting to die down.

He brushed his once brown fringe to one side in a characteristic motion which energised the crowd again.  How they loved him, and even with his hair now almost white, they could still picture him as the winsome youth he’d once been.

“It is an honour to be with you, and for the first time in my life, to have you all in the same room.”

More cheers.  He let it run again, and then his face became sombre, the gathered guests at once responded.

“There are those who couldn’t make it today, but we have their images up there on the memory wall, so they could be present in spirit.”

There were sighs at this thoughtfulness, and many looked at the wall, remembering those who’d been lost along the way.

He turned on his thousand watt smile and the room forgot about the dead, and turned once more back to him.

“But now it’s time to talk about me, and all that you’ve done to help me.”

More cheers.

“Dennis over here, has, as ever, provided me with a script.”  He favoured the man who’d introduced him with a kindly smile.

“He assures me that he originally wanted to mention every single person in this room, but when he timed the speech, it came to 74 hours.  And that was without toilet breaks.”

He delivered the line completely dead-pan.  There was a pause and then the room erupted with laughter.  He’d always been able to work a crowd, with Dennis’ coaching of course.

“So instead I’m going to talk about my successes, and how you’ve helped.”

There was a hush as they waited, each hoping they’d been mentioned, and hanging on his words.

“I was very successful at school, in part due to Thomas Greenwood, yes stand up Tommy, who did my exams, and Philip Pulling, who represented me at football.”  He paused while the two men stood up and bowed to all around them.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask that you stand up and nod quickly when mentioned, to give us any chance of that toilet break I saved from Dennis’ machinations.”

Quiet reigned again.

“With my grades, and football scholarship, I attended a select college where Tommy once more excelled at my exams.  Poor Philip tore a hamstring, so was replace by William Turbot, who unfortunately can’t be here today.  However when he was representing me, he managed to get me all the way to the finals, and scored the winning goal on my behalf.”

Cheers, which he let run for a while.

“Now with a college degree, and in excellent fitness it was time for me to get a job.”

He looked a little put out, and was greeted with the obligatory groans, and a few wry smiles.

“My career strategists, Harriet and Joyce, there you are, advised me to become a lawyer, and they selected Mr Bryce Jones for the early part of my career.  He ensured I excelled at law school, and landed a job at the top law firm in the country, before getting me through my training and setting me up for a decent run at partnership.  He handed the baton to Pete here who got me through to become the youngest ever partner at the law firm.”

He leaned down and put his arm around another white haired man who was sitting next to him, looking a little confused, but smiled when he saw who was hugging him.

“All that hard work, just to get me to the bottom rung of partnership, and that’s when my strategists had an idea.  We decided to play it a little dirty.  So Jonathan was brought in to be me.  There he is the old dog.  He slept with other partners, or their partners…” an appreciative laugh. “… whatever was necessary to secure my advance, and knock out the competition.  I won’t lie, we had fun, but it was perhaps the least savoury time of my life.”

Hush.

“And then I met darling Alice, the love of my life.”

Alice stood up, still beautiful despite her advancing years, and smiled her quirky, knowing smile.

“Jonathan stepped out, and Russell stepped in.  As me he married Alice, and fathered our first child, young Jeffrey.  Sadly he became confused about his role and we had to let him go, and Jimmy stepped in.  He went on to father Paul and little Thesia.  Not so little now.”

He smiled at his daughter who barely managed to smile back.  She had been lucky enough to get many of her mother’s looks, if not her sunny temperament.

Dennis tapped him on the arm.

“Ah yes, sorry, my tempo is off.  So many faces from the past, all those who made my life what it was.  While the family life was going well, my professional career peaked, when I was made head of the firm.  George Dancing did the hard work, and I am forever in his debt.  Though of course the work was its own reward, hey George?”

George nodded dutifully, and the room chuckled along.

“Here’s where the strategy changed, and the answer was politics.  We felt there’d been enough time since my Jonathan phase, and we’d managed to buy off or get something on everyone affected.  I was squeaky clean, had three wonderful children, and a beautiful wife.  I was made for politics.  My early career, as a senator, was handled by Grace Riely, the first time I’d been a woman, but she was so talented we knew it would work, and it did.  Her schmoozing, and backroom deals, meant within two terms I was the only real candidate for the highest job in the land.  President!”

Clapping and whoops greeted this, much as they had when he’d been elected.

“Two terms, the first performed by Grace and the second by Adam, and my legacy was secure.  It was time to retire.”

They all knew his story, so they knew that wasn’t the case, but he held them there for a little while.

“But with the success we had, I knew there was more, so I ran for Secretary General of the UN.  Edmund Chung represented me, and as the first American SecGen, I set about changing that institution.  Under my tenure, aided by Ken Ho who took over from Edmund for my third and fourth terms, that institution became more than a talking shop, it became the most important global force.  A nascent government in all but name!”

They were on their feet now, he’d got to his true triumph, the one they’d all helped to bring about.  The clapping and feet stamping went on for quite a while.

Time to wind them down.

“Since then, well, I’ve played golf,” he nodded at Guy, “a bit of tennis,” a wink at Tony, “and spent time with my wife.”  He air punched Jimmy gently.

He smiled again, electrifying the room and they all went wild.  The cheering might have continued for a while except they noticed that someone was doing a slow clap.  Silence rippled out from Paul, the great man’s son until the only sound was the slow clap, clap from one of the two men who now walked towards the platform.

Until they stopped and the one who had been clapping said, “I have a question father.”  There was a slight emphasis on father.

Favouring first the clapper, and then his son with a smile he said, “Yes Paul?”

“What have you,” he pointed accusingly at the titan, “ever actually done?”

For the first time Philip Forbes looked confused as if he really couldn’t understand the question.  Then he smiled, “I recognise you now, sorry Albert, you’re my son’s troublemaker aren’t you?”

The young mine nodded, but maintained his grumpy air.  The room let go a collective breath they hadn’t realised they’d been holding, it was all going to be fine.

Philip answered his son, “And to answer the question Paul, I did all that I wanted to, I just outsourced the rest.”

###

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Personal Assistant

I have been tempted on a number of occasions to get a virtual personal assistant.  Life is so complicated these days that having someone help would be awesome… and it got me thinking…

 

Personal Assistant

“George, I wanted to thank you so much for your recommendation, Subrah has simply changed my life!”

“Um, Subrah?”

“My virtual personal assistant.  You sent me a mail recommending I get one, I think it was last month.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did.”

“Look Doris, I really don’t think…”

“Here it is.”

She passed him her phone, and there, quite clearly was an email from him, suggesting she get a virtual personal assistant and suggesting a particular company, whose name he recognised.  Except he knew he hadn’t written it.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry Doris, my mind’s going.  There’s been a lot going on, what with moving house and all.”

Looking at him sceptically she shook her head.

“George, George.  Maybe you should get one of these assistants.  You might be forgetting to do important things.”

“I tried it Doris, but it just didn’t work out for me.  I’m glad it is for you.”

“Oh he’s quite amazing.  I didn’t think someone sitting thousands of miles away could help me so much. He filters my email, he’s got all my passwords set up, he found me a new online stockbroker, and then there’s this diet he found for me.  It’s amazing, all green food one week, all red the next…”

George tuned her out.  Once she started talking about a diet she couldn’t stop, it was the same when she had been a teenager.  He loved his sister, but being able to tune her out was a survival skill.  He wondered how that email could have been written.  Had someone hacked his email account?  He didn’t think it was possible, after all he was the only person who knew the password, and it was a nice long one.  That was one thing Vipal had done for him, he’d taught him to use long passwords.  Wait, did Vipal know the password as well?  Of course he did, George had given them all to him, and hadn’t quite managed to get round to changing them.  Had Vipal hacked into his account and sent recommendation emails?

“Sorry to interrupt you Doris, I’ve just remembered an important meeting.  I must dash.”

“Oh George, this is why you need an assistant.”

“Perhaps, got to run, I’ll text you.”

He headed back towards his office, and dialled the direct number for Vipal.

“Mr George, I believe you said you no longer wanted our services.”

The Mr George was a joke based on his love of the Simpsons.  He wasn’t finding it funny anymore.

“I know Vipal, but I wanted to know why you were sending emails claiming to be from me recommending the services of your company.”

“Now Mr George, you know you agreed to send some recommendation emails as part of the original deal.  That’s how you could afford our VIP price plan.  You have excellent connections.”

“Yes, but I didn’t send it!”

“Of course you did.  It came from your account.”

“But you wrote it.”

“I merely helped you do the needful.”

George was remembering why he quit the service.  He could never win an argument with Vipal.  Which was the reason he was wearing Calvin Klein jeans, despite his hatred of brands, especially slightly faded ones, and jeans.

“Yes, right, thanks.  That’s to be the last thing though.  I shall be changing my password.”

“Of course Mr George.  Don’t forget you have an appointment with the dentist this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“What?  I don’t have an appointment…”

“It is your annual check-up.”

“Ah, thanks.  But that’s it.”

“Of course Mr George.  Have a good day.”

George looked at his phone in some consternation.  He was confused.  Had he managed to actually fire Vipal?  But also, how was he going to survive?  He’d never have remembered to book the dentist.  They’d probably sent reminders, but he was very good at not seeing them.  No, he wanted control of his life.  He’d just have to be firm with Vipal next time they spoke.

He thought Janice would probably laugh at him again.  She still had her assistant and loved her.  He’d told her last week that he was firing Vipal and she’d said she couldn’t survive without the support, and he just needed to relax.

Now that he thought about it, he’d only met Janice because of Vipal.  The assistant had signed him up to that online dating service, Partners he thought it was called.  To be honest he’d been quite annoyed at first, but Vipal had done everything.  Just told him where and when to meet the dates.    Janice wasn’t the first match, and he’d been a bit unsure at first, but they’d kept having dates.  Then Vipal and Asha, Janice’s assistant, had synced up their diaries, and here they were, nice and happy.

Except he wasn’t happy.  Hadn’t been happy.  Maybe he was happier now.  Since he’d fired Vipal he’d been able to sleep properly.  A black cloud had lifted, and yet today it had returned.  He needed to get rid of his assistant properly.  After the dentist appointment though.  Mind made up, he headed towards the station.

As he walked he realised he’d never be able to fire Vipal with a direct conversation and he was just wondering how to get to Vipal’s supervisor when he bumped into someone.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you st…”

He’d bumped into a very pretty girl, and suddenly realised he knew her.

“Philippa?”

“George.”

Very cold response.

“Ah, how are you?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

“What?”

“Look, I’m not going to stand here chatting to a bloke who stood me up, multiple times, and has just nearly knocked me to the ground.”

She started to stalk off.

“Wait a second, you stood me up!  That time at Da Vinci’s, I was there for two hours.”

“What are you talking about George?  We never agreed to meet at Da Vinci’s.”

“But Vipal said…”

“Vipal.  Yes, your master.”

He thought he might be starting to understand, and he didn’t like the implications.

“Look Philippa, I’m really sorry.  I think the whole virtual assistant thing was a mistake.  I’ve got rid of Vipal, can I take you for a coffee?”

Her head had turned away from him, but she stopped and slowly looked at him again.  He could see the tears starting in her eyes, and her desperation to stop them flowing.

“One coffee George.”

They sat quietly over their coffees.  He wasn’t sure how to begin, but she started.

“What hurt most was that you just sent text messages.  It was always something about work, or another idiotic excuse.”

“I don’t think I texted you, I never use work as an excuse.”

Not least because he didn’t work that hard.

“You said that, and yet your texts contradicted you.”

“Could you show me the texts?”

She stiffened.  “What makes you think I still have them?”

“Ah, I just hoped.  Look, here is my text history with you.”

He turned his phone to her.

“You kept them?  Really?”

He didn’t want to tell her that he just never deleted anything.

“Of course, I was kind of hoping to see you again.”

Thoughts of Janice flashed in his head, but this was about finding out what was happening in his life, and nothing else.

“Me too.  Here, I kept all your texts.  Even the ones where you were being a total bastard.”

He looked through the texts, and then at his phone.  More than half the texts didn’t match up.  It explained why some of her texts had made no sense.  In fact his worries about her sanity had been one of the reasons he’d finally finished it with her.

“I didn’t write these texts Philippa.  In fact, I think it was Vipal.”

“Your assistant?  Oh George, can’t you just be a man and admit your own mistakes.”

He could hear the tears coming back, and she was reaching over to collect her things when he touched her arm.

“No really, I discovered today that he’d been writing emails from my account, recommending the services of his company.”

“But, can he do that?”

“He has.  I don’t know how to stop it.”

“Why did he send these texts then?  Why did he want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t know.  Perhaps if you had an assistant we could ask them?”

She looked pensive, and opened her mouth to say something, before closing it.

“What?”

“Well, it’s just, I was offered a free trial of a virtual assistant just after we started going out.  I said I didn’t need one.  They became quite insistent, and it wasn’t until I threatened to go to the authorities that they stopped.  I was going to tell you about it…”

“But about that time I started to stand you up.”

“Yes.”

“Look Philippa, I think I need your help.  You had a lucky escape, but I think I’m trapped…”

“There you are.  And who is this?”

“Oh, Janice, hi.  This is Philippa, I bumped into her in the street.”

“Really.  Well that’s enough of that, we are supposed to be having coffee.  Come along.  Nice to meet you Phyllis.”

Janice seized his arm possessively and started to move away.  He tried to say goodbye to Philippa, but was swept along by Janice.

“Now George, we’re going to have a lovely coffee, and a nice slice of cake, and not talk about what just happened.”

They had lunch and George went to his dentist appointment in a daze.  They told him he’d need some work done on his teeth, fillings and suchlike, and they’d organise the dates with his assistant.  He just nodded.

He went into work and Peterson called him in for a meeting.  He did like his boss, but he wasn’t quite sure he could cope with another telling off.  There’d been a few of those in the last month.  Without Vipal he was struggling to get to meetings and hit deadlines.

“George, please sit down.”

This did not bode well.

“Look, sir, if this is about this morning…”

“Call me Henry.  No one calls me sir, it’s just so old fashioned.  You’re a funny one.”

“Henry, about this morning…”

“Nothing to worry about old man.  Didn’t want to talk about it.  What I wanted to say was, congratulations, you’ve done it!

“What?”

“You old sneak you.  I wondered why you’d become so flaky this last month, and now I find out you’ve done your certification and applied for a different job.”

“I did, I have?”

“Yes, the boys over in sector 7G are excited to have someone of your quality on board.  They’ve never had someone get a hundred percent in the exams before.”

“Oh right, well you know.”

“And I wanted to apologise for being so rough on you recently, but if you’d just told me.  Well I guess you were worried I might not want to lose you, but I’d have supported you all the way, and still will.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you.  Now get over to 7G and see your new digs.”

“Ah.”

7G had been his dream when he’d started at the company.  They did all the innovative stuff, but he’d been rejected.  Ended up in one of the side areas, each day a little of his hope eroding away, and yet now, suddenly, he was in.  But, well, it was obvious.  It had been Vipal.

That night he sat in his kitchen staring at the phone on the table.  He needed to call Vipal.  He needed to be free.  Yet, he looked around.  It was a lovely flat.  Vipal and Asha had found it for them, and it was a steal, though he and Janice could barely afford it.  Except now he was going to be getting a bit more money so they wouldn’t have problems.  Janice was lovely too.  Perhaps not the type of girl he had imagined he’d end up with, but still, she was attractive, successful and everyone said they made a good couple.  He stared at the phone again and realised he had no choice.

“Mr George, nice to hear from you.”

“Look Vipal…”

“Yes Mr George?”

He paused, and said, “Can you set up a surprise dinner with Janice?  Somewhere nice?  I need to tell her about my promotion.  Also, can you find me an engagement ring, make sure the band is a little large so she has a reason to visit the shop and be pampered.”

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

#

“Mr George, there is an unscheduled entry in your diary.”

Vipal actually meant there was an entry in the diary which George had been foolish enough to put in himself.  There was clear frustration in Vipal’s voice, like a master who wonders if his dog will ever be trained.  George had been very good at following his assistant’s appointments for a few weeks now and Vipal had assumed George was properly settled.

“Oh yes Vipal, good morning.  I must have forgotten to mention it to you.”

“Indeed Mr George.  Shall I cancel it?”

“Oh no, it’s very important.  It’s a conference call, and I’m keen that you join as well.”

“I always join Mr George, so I can keep a record for you.”

“I meant as a participant.”

“That is most irregular Mr George.”

“Yet still permitted?”

There was silence, and then Vipal said grudgingly, “Yes, Mr George.”

“Excellent.  Let’s dial in.”

They hit the appropriate icons on their screens and waited a few seconds for the call to connect.  They both appeared on the list of participants, and then a new person joined, called Prikesh.  George thought he heard Vipal gasp.

“Morning George, Vipal.”

“Morning Prikesh,” said George.

Vipal said nothing.

“Morning Vipal,” repeated Prikesh.

“Ah morning Prikesh.”

“I’m glad you could both join.  This meeting is to discuss resetting of relationships.”

“But Prikesh…”

“Vipal, this is for your own good.  And don’t forget in ten minutes you have that call with the mechanic, so we do not have time to waste.”

“Yes Prikesh.”

If Vipal had been a dog, his tail would have been between his legs by this point.

“As I was saying.  Relationship reset.  Mr George has approached me and asked me to help him initiate a more freestyle programme.  He understands that it will cost him the same amount, but that he will be receiving less service from you Vipal.  He was lucky as we have just started a programme, initially aimed at our highest paying customers, but it is good to have a few other test subjects at the VIP level.”

“Ah…”

“I will transfer you the instructions for you to read in your next break, but in essence you will only provide him with support when he explicitly asks for it.  He may ask you to add proactive services, but these must be on a case by case basis.  Do you understand Vipal?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand George?”

“Yes.  Thank you Prikesh.”

“Good.  I shall drop off the call and let you discuss it further, but your call with the mechanic is soon Vipal, I’ll leave a timer in your window.  Also I’ve rearranged your lunch with Priyanka, you need more time to prepare for the group meeting this afternoon.  She said she understood.”

Before Vipal could say a word in response Prikesh had dropped off.

George gave Vipal his first two tasks under the new arrangement.  The first was to untangle his life from Janice, and the second was to find Philippa again.

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

“Thank you Vipal, and when you speak to Prikesh again, can you send my regards?  I do think you are lucky to have such an excellent personal assistant.”

###

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The Truth About God

It’s been a while, not least because the world has been moving on apace, and I often feel out of sync with it.  This story picks up on that vibe…

 

The Truth About God

“I’m Mike, and I’m the last person on the planet who believes in God.”

The room was silent for a while and then my-name-is-Alison-and-I’m-here-to-help said, “Mike, this is an alcoholics anonymous meeting, I’m not sure we’re equipped to deal with someone with such a… um… eccentric problem.”

I left before it got awkward.  Or more awkward.  I don’t try to proselytise, I never did.  To everyone, Gods don’t exist.  Why question that?  Or the sun, or gravity, or evolution?  I had an embarrassing insanity.

After the AA meeting I decided I needed a break.  From people, from society.  I would go into the hills, restore my faith, and return better able to face the looks of incredulity from my work colleagues, my now ex-friends.  It was probably best my mother was dead.  She’d bought Pascal’s line, and believed just in case.  That’s not belief to me, but she’d have worried about me.  At least someone would have.

The mountain was lovely.  It was behind the wooden shack, and all around were trees.  Going on and on.  The brochure had mentioned wild animals, in a slightly cautious manner.  I was excited about them.

I’d brought supplies.  Food, water.  Enough for a couple of weeks.

Each day I’d start by going outside and greeting the sun.  I’d think that but for God’s grace I wouldn’t be able to, there would be no sun, no mountain for me.  It felt hollow.  I was starting to have a sneaking suspicion.

I read somewhere that for God to exist, people have to believe in him.  If they stop believing, then, well, he just fades away.  Or she.  Either way, the divine entity is gone.  Was my belief enough to sustain a being capable of creating the world in six days?  I was mildly confident I could believe in a divinity who’d take the seventh day off.

At the end of the second week I walked out in the morning and greeted the sun, accepting it was only there because of physics.  Complex physics yes, and we still haven’t worked out how Dark Energy works, but that doesn’t require belief, just observation and maths.  I’d been the last believer.  Now I was just like everyone else.

That day there was a knock at the door.

“Hello?”

“Hi, are you Mark?  That believer fellow.”

“I am Mark.”

“Don’t believe any more?”

I paused.  But then I knew saying it would be the final step of my freedom.

“No.  There is no God, or gods or whatever.”

The man whooped and started jumping up and down.

“I won, I won!”

“Won what?”

Loki turned to me and winked, “My bet with Odin.”

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Stretched

I wrote this when our girls were a bit younger, and the first part more or less describes one of my nights – though there were many similar ones.  The commute after always made it a little more painful.

 

Stretched

“Wha.. what time is it?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get them, I need to get up soon anyway.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled as she drifted back to sleep. She could ignore the babies crying now that I was awake.

I looked at the alarm clock again, and then did a double take, it wasn’t five o’clock, it was three.   This felt like one of those days.

If I was lucky it would only be one of them. I was lucky, so far. Mercey was screeching like a banshee but Clemmy was still snoring gently. It amazed me that they could sleep through a racket which actually hurt my head, but they’d never woken each other up.

Mercey had woken because of her nappy. Somehow she’d taken the healthy white milk we’d fed her, and turned it into a yellowy brown toxic sludge, which it was my unenviable duty to dispose of. I thought of waking Helen, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep with all the screeching anyway. When they were first born they’d been passive during nappy changes, now it was wriggle central. Normally I could control it, but in the blurry morning I failed. First she got hold of the nappy, and managed to drag it back over her, spilling its contents everywhere. Then, to cap it off, she peed all over the mat.

“Mercey my love, that wasn’t at all helpful now was it.”

She just stared at me. I wondered if she was laughing on the inside.

It took me twenty minutes to clean her, put a new nappy and baby grow on and get her settled with a bottle of milk. The milk was cheating, but I was really hoping she’d nod off again and I could grab another hour of sleep. Mercey, full name Mercedes Suzanne Harvey, was such a delight most of the time, none more so than immediately after a night time feed. She smiled and put her arms out for a cuddle. I held her in my arms, and wallowed in the joy of being a father, and with such a lovely little girl. She was tired, and didn’t fuss when I put her pack down. I looked over at Clemmy, still snoozing away, and I gently closed the door and walked back to bed.

My head had literally just touched the pillow when there was another banshee scream. I could have sworn Mercey was sleepy. Perhaps I’d rushed her? I needed to get to her before she went ballistic. Helen didn’t even grunt as I assured her all was under control and headed back to the baby. Except it wasn’t Mercey, it was Clemmy. Mercey was already sleeping quite happily. Clemmy’s nappy was if anything worse than Mercey’s. She didn’t pull the nappy away, which was good, but she did pee at just the wrong time, drenching the new nappy, her clothes and my arm as I tried, vainly, to control the flow. She too was happy when she had finished her milk.

“Clementine Julia Harvey, you are a pretty little girl, but it’s now sleepy time,” I whispered to her as I held her. Unfortunately, she disagreed. Whenever I put her down in her cot she started to cry, and cranked up the volume if I didn’t respond immediately. I knew I should let her cry for a bit, but it was so hard. The cries rasping across my nerves. I tried to explain to her why she needed to go to sleep.

“Clemmy darling, Daddy has to go to work today. It’s a big day as he’s meeting the boss to present next year’s budget, and he could really do with another hour’s sleep.”

Talking about myself in the third person was one of the many things I’d sworn never to do.

“Please Clemmy?”

Perhaps the desperation in my voice got through, because she calmed down and even let me put her in the cot. She looked up at me again and then rolled over, and was asleep before I put the light out. I checked on Mercey, she was still asleep, and I crept back to bed.

As I was about to slip into bed, the thought of resting my heading beguiling me, a loud screech filled the room. I stared about in bewilderment until I realised it was my alarm. Clemmy had taken all my remaining sleep time. I have to admit, part of me wanted to go downstairs and wake her up and keep her awake so she could see. I didn’t, not just because I’m not that cruel, and it would be self defeating as a tired Clemmy is not something I’d wish on anyone. It was also because I really did have a big meeting and I needed to get going.

I washed and showered in a zombie like state. Kissed Helen goodbye, not that she noticed as she was still enjoying her precious sleep before the morning feed and the beginning of the daily circus. Somehow, despite having woken up so early I was running late. Early morning traffic, something I’d always felt was an oxymoron, conspired to slow me down, and then the carpark was nearly full and I was forced to park miles from the station. I ran to the ticket machine. They’d recently put ticket barriers in so there was no longer the option to just jump on the train and buy a ticket, and I’d been caught out by that a couple of times.

As I neared the ticket machine a woman who was heading in that direction saw me and cut across my path. She then ambled to the machine. I wondered if I should push past her, after all I had my card and knew the dance so would be very quick. She got to the machine before the devil on my shoulder had won the argument. Our machines are not as slow as they used to be. Which is to say that they’ve replaced the clockwork with steam; but if you do the right things they take slightly less than a minute. I know, I’ve timed it. The woman did not know the dance, and managed to push the wrong buttons, put her card in at the wrong time which cause the whole transaction to cancel, and generally did her best to wind me up. She eventually got her tickets and ambled off, and it was my turn. Fifty-five seconds later I was heading for the barriers. As I got through my train pulled away.

Some days.

The guard nodded sympathetically at me, “Some days,” he said. I managed a weak smile before heading to the coffee place. I might as well grab one while I waited the half hour for the next train. The problem with living out in the sticks was that, well, I was out in the sticks. Transport was infrequent, people were slow, and there was an almost continuous smell of manure in the air. I mean it was a lovely laid back lifestyle.

They of course did not have decaf coffee, apparently they’d just run out. The man smiled an apology, “Some days.” Yes. I just wondered why every day was turning into one of them. So I had the hot chocolate, which would at least warm me.

We were the end of the line, which meant the train usually sat waiting for the next departure, which at this time of year meant a warm place to stay. Unfortunately it was delayed so I had to hang out on the platform, trying my best to get cover from the wind by leaning against the wall. The autumn breeze was tricky and vicious though, and kept finding me. In my rush to get out of the house I’d forgotten my coat, and the house was just far enough away that I couldn’t definitely get there and back before the next train.

“What ho!”

Oh dear lord, I thought to myself. It was Doug, in one of his Bertie Wooster moods.

“Hi Doug, how are you.”

“Damned tired if you must know. Had to get up before the sparrows today, got a big meeting up in the Big Smoke you see.”

Doug was some kind of City person. Lawyer possibly. He had told me, but I’d managed to forget.

“It is rather early I agree. You in for the whole day?”

“Oh no old chap, got lunch at the club, then back out for a quick round of golf with the father-in-law, got to keep the old man happy.”

If he’d been any more of a stereotype I’d have had to kill him. I shook my head at him.

“Please Doug, not today.”

“Sorry mate, what’s up, you look like death.”

“Got a meeting with Higgins today.”

“Oh right. Well if it makes you feel any better I really have meetings all day, not even a break for lunch, and there is a very faint hope I might get out before midnight. We’re allegedly signing today.”

“Thanks Doug, that does make me feel a little better.” It didn’t really, but at least he was trying. We’d gone to school together, but then he’d gone to a different, ok I’ll admit, better, university, and ended up a high flyer. I’d somehow ended up in the middle. Of everything, and it would appear an ever widening lake of poo.

“Cheer up, the weekend is only five working days away!”

Before I could think of a suitable reply the train had pulled in.

“See you sometime soon,” said Doug as he headed to the first class carriage. Just as he got to the door, he turned and said, “Toodle pip!” before laughing and getting in. Really, I could kill him sometimes.

I got on to the train, and headed for my favourite seat. It had extra leg room and a table for my laptop. Somehow, despite the fact that there’d been almost no one else on the platform, someone had taken my seat, and my second favourite too. I stared for a moment before sighing and heading towards one of the other seats. I’d arrive in London with back ache at the very least, but it was, just, better than standing.

My hour long train journey consisted of the usual joys. A large, and yet bony, man sat next to me and felt that he should have three quarters of my seat as well. He read a broadsheet newspaper and managed to cover half my laptop screen, and it was only after a few coughs and a couple of bumps that he moved across enough to allow me to continue to breathe. Then we had the loud and chirpy couple who had to share how great their lives were with the whole carriage. By the time I got to London I was desperate to get out of the terrible little box. Even if meant that I had to get the tube.

The tube ride was normal. By which I mean, crowded, smelly and unpleasant, but in a comforting London way. I arrived at work, fifteen minutes late, and with just five minutes to prepare for my meeting.

There was a note on my desk from my boss, “Come as soon as you get in!” Oh dear. As I got to his office his secretary looked at me sympathetically and said, “He wanted to move you forward half an hour to fit in a call with Asia. He’s on the call now, but based on his expression it isn’t going well.”

“Thanks.”

I sat, like a naughty school boy, on the chair outside his office. I never understood how they could make these chairs so uncomfortable. It was as if there was a special factory, somewhere in China probably, where they forced their designers to make torture chairs, and if there was the hint of comfort in them the designer would be taken outside and probably forced to sit in someone else’s bad chair so he’d get the idea.

“Come in.”

Damn he was grumpy. His secretary gave me another sympathetic smile as I followed him in. He pointed at the table.

“Don’t want to hear excuses. Tell me about next year.”

Excuses? Oh for being late. Right. I took a breath and started to give him my spiel on the departments future. We’d had a tough year, but we knew what we had to do, we were concentrating on quality, and we were going to invest in some new senior designers.

I was getting in to my pitch when I noticed his glower, and then he shook his head.

“No, no, no. You just don’t get it. Hopkins warned me, but I didn’t believe him.”

What? Hopkins, he was my number two. A bit young for the position, and wet behind the ears, but I had hopes of moulding him in a year or two. Why would he be talking to Higgins?

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t understand.”

“No Harvey, you don’t understand. The world has changed. Haven’t you noticed the recession? We’ve been in it for three years!”

“Yes sir, I have, which is why I think we should concentrate on the clients who want quality, they’ll stick with us.”

“We make a loss on every one of those clients! Sure, we used to make a profit, but with the time your team puts in, and the discounts we’ve had to give.”

“I did say the discounts…”

“Don’t interrupt me!” His voice was vicious. “If we’d not given discounts we’d have lost more clients. They’re the ones who pay us you know.”

I realised that there wasn’t anything I could say.

“Well, what are you going to do Harvey?”

“I don’t know sir, I guess I could look at the numbers again, maybe cut some of the hiring…”

He put his head in his hands.

“Look, Harvey, this world,” he indicated the office, I think, “is no longer the same. You don’t fit in to the new world.”

“What?”

“In the olden days I’d tell you I expected your resignation, but we aren’t allowed to do it that way anymore. I’ll speak to HR, and they’ll get on to you later today. Hopkins will help you pack up.”

I just stood there gaping. He shook my hand, wished my luck and more or less pushed me out of his office.

I went back to my own office, much smaller than my boss’s, but still an office, a space of my own, and closing the door, I sat down. I stared at the screen, unable to comprehend what had just happened. I stayed in that number state for weeks. The HR interview, redundancy package and everything else just flowed over me. I nodded, smiled even and signed whatever I was given, and started my gardening leave. Helen and I spoke, I’m sure of it, but I don’t really know what about. I even failed to enjoy my time with the twins, though fortunately they were too young to notice my distraction and seemed to view it as a further excuse to climb all over me.

Despite my fug I was counting the days till our money ran out. With my redundancy I could pay off our cards, which I thought would give us some space, but with what Helen earned as a primary school assistant, we couldn’t afford the bills, let alone the mortgage. I had to get a job.

I told myself it would be easy to get a new job. I told myself I’d never get a new job. The excuses came and went, and I just sat, staring at the TV until the twins cried, or Helen really pushed me. Eventually, with just weeks of money left I went to a recruitment consultant.

“Look mate, with your experience getting you a new gig is going to be easy.”

“Really?”

The shiny suited specimen in front of me had assured me that he was the best, that he cared about his clients, and that he had connections in all the right places. All I could think was that he looked about twelve, and that if he was my best hope, then perhaps I was in real trouble.

“Course mate, you can trust me. We’ll have to tweak your CV a bit.”

He paused, and said, “I also need to be honest with you. You’re not going to be getting a pay increase. If you were still in a job, then sure easy, but as you’ve been out of one for a few months I just won’t be able to swing it.”

I hadn’t even considered an increase. Suddenly I perked up a bit, if I could get a job at my old salary then we’d actually be ahead of the game, because all our card debts were now gone.

“Great, well I’m eager to get going.” And I was.

The first place I interviewed seemed to think I wanted a junior position. I soon disabused them of that notion, and they politely said they had nothing at my level. This was repeated a few times, until I realised that my shiny suited friend was just sending me to anything remotely covered by my CV and wasn’t even checking the level. We had some words. He apologised, said he was just finding the level and he’d sort me out. He was so thick skinned it was almost impressive.

Several more pointless interviews followed. Some were at my level, but they seemed to think I wouldn’t fit in, or that I lacked commercial experience. I explained about the importance of good service and craftsmanship. I came to recognise the slightly condescending expression which presaged rejection. One of them even tried to tell me that in this new world there wasn’t time for that, people just wanted enough to get by. I argued and told him that it was short termism and would cost more in the longer term. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Most of them know they won’t be there in the long term, one way or another.”

They were right, I didn’t fit in. My fug returned.

Then I thought that maybe I could go it alone. A small scale company, dedicated to doing it properly. I would need some capital to keep me going for the first year or so while I got started, but I could see it, soon I’d be raking in the cash, stealing customers from my old firm. I went to a bank. They asked for a business plan. I gave them one. They didn’t laugh, but I think they were close. They tore it apart, nicely, and asked me to do it again. I did, but the numbers still didn’t add up for them. They tried to tell me that to make it work I needed to do more marketing, but that would mean less time for making the product, which meant either I had to charge more, or do a poor job. In the end I couldn’t get them to buy into it. The next bank were even less interested. I hit a new low.

“What is this!” I shouted, pointing at the large Amazon package.

Helen looked up, frowning at my volume.

“Shush, the girls are, finally, asleep.”

I didn’t care. I repeated my demand.

“It’s a present for the girls. They are going to be one next week.”

“Helen, I’ve told you, we can’t afford it. We can’t afford anything!”

The argument raged for a while. It ended with Helen almost screaming at me.

“I am doing everything I can, I’m even doing extra shifts, but as you have said to me oh so many times, I’ll never earn enough. Well then, you need to suck it in. You’re not a manager any more. You don’t have an office. You are nothing! If you don’t get a job soon we’ll have to sell the house, and then we’ll have nothing. Get a job. Anything. Otherwise I’m leaving.”

She stalked off, in tears, to try and comfort the girls who had woken up sometime during our fight.

I was beside myself. Who was she to say that to me? I had been supporting the family for years. Earning the money while she indulged herself with part time jobs and suchlike. I seethed. I had to get out.

I walked in to our little town. One street of shops, a couple of supermarkets and a farmers’ market every other Wednesday. The most exciting thing to happen recently had been the arrival of the Costa Coffee shop. By the time I got to the Costa my anger had drained completely and I realised what a fool I had been. I looked in to the window, almost pressing my nose to the glass like a boy at a sweet shop. I couldn’t afford a coffee.

I walked around for most of the afternoon, and a plan formed in my mind. I was going to get us out of our hole. First I had to apologise to Helen.

I got back home to the usual chaos, and inbetween changing nappies, feeding, bathing and bedtime I managed to grovel my way into forgiveness. It always amazed my how the babies could suck up time, but we’d become much better at having syncopated conversations while looking after them.

“So the plan is this. We sell the house. I get a temporary job until that’s done, and then I’ll start my own firm using our money instead of owing the bank. I’ll show them that craftsmanship is still needed.”

She looked at me and then hugged me. “It’s so good to have you back. It’s been dreadful living with a zombie these past months.”

“ A zombie? Like in Thriller.”

“Ha, no, not with your Dad dancing style!”

I laughed. It felt good to have a plan.

Helen rang the estate agency the next day, and I rang the temp agency. The estate agent came right round, a bad sign in retrospect as they clearly hadn’t anything to do. They hummed and harred and eventually gave us a price which would pay off our mortgage and give us a little profit. Enough to pay for rent for a year, and give me the capital to start a firm. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more, but it was still going to set us free.

The temp agency found me some work, and while it wasn’t enough on its own to pay the mortgage it would give us a bit more time. I even applied to work shifts at Costa.

The weeks passed. My temp work was mind-numbingly dull, and serving coffee wasn’t much more interesting. The girls were teething so sleep was a rare luxury, and Helen was back at school which meant that we were juggling the child care. Worse, we’d had one person to view the house and their only feedback had been that the rooms were the wrong shape. Really.

I was exhausted, and the money was still dripping away. We got the estate agent back to ask why the house wasn’t selling. It took them an hour to say it, but it came down to price. They wanted us to drop it, by twenty percent. They were certain they could sell at that. My heart sank. At that price we’d barely cover the mortgage, let alone have any left to live on or invest in my company. I almost screamed at them to get out, but managed to hold on long enough to see them to the door.

“Oh darling. It’s going to be alright.”

Helen’s words were the final straw. It wasn’t going to be alright. We were drowning and there was nothing going to save us. The anger began to bubble in me and I knew I had to get away. I just ran out of the door.

I walked and walked. The whole mess bearing down on me. It was all my fault. If I’d been more flexible at work. If we hadn’t built up so much debt. If. If. If. I found myself in a park, walking round, crying and repeating if again and again. I had been stretched too far, and had now finally snapped. I didn’t know if I’d ever get better again.

Someone bumped into me. I mumbled and staggered away.

“Watch out you imbecile!”

My anger flared and I turned, ready to launch myself at whoever it was. I’d had enough of the world pushing me about. As I stalked towards the man, he said, “Oh it’s you Harvey. Haven’t seen you for a while.”

It was Doug. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I was about to turn away when he peered at me.

“I say old chap, are you ok?”

Clearly I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure if I could cope with him, especially if he was about to Bertie Wooster me again.

Realising that I wasn’t going to answer he grabbed my arm and started marching me along the path. “I know just what you need old man.”

Apathy had followed the burst of anger, and I let him guide me. All the way to the pub. He dumped me in a corner and bought me a pint.

“Now, old boy. Spill.”

I think he was hoping to get a smile out of me, but I had no smiles left. Instead I took a large gulp of stout and started to talk. Two pints and an hour of rant later I came to a shuddering halt. It felt so good to talk to someone.

He frowned at me and said, “So let me get this straight. You care too much about doing your job properly to get a proper job. You have a wonderful wife, and two little girls who need you. You’ve more or less run out of cash, and you’re trying to sell your house into the worst property market in a generation.”

I tried to argue with him, but the drain of telling my story, and the affect of the alcohol meant I all I managed as, “Not really.”

“Yes, really.” He frowned. “Look, I’m not promising anything, but, I think I might be able to help you. Or at least help you help yourself. If you’re willing to try.”

Pandora’s final curse fluttered in my heart again, could Doug save me?

“First we need another drink, and then we’ll get you back home to your wife and delightful little urchins. I’m sure she’ll be worrying about you.”

Helen accepted the shambling wreck I’d become from Doug, who promised to call in a day or two.

He was as good as his word. He called me in and laid out his proposal. At first I didn’t quite understand, and then I was unsure it would work, but he promised me it would. He offered to invest for a fifty-fifty share of the profits, and said he’d find our first customers. He talked wistfully about maybe giving up the commute and working locally, or even retiring, if we could pull it off.

That’s how we started our business. We had a rocky first year, but Doug was true to his word and covered the costs, and now we’re making enough for me to cover the mortgage and even buy the girls, including Helen, the occasional treat. We’re still not making enough that Doug can afford to retire, but we’re about to hire another member of staff which is a great sign. I’ve been very clear with Doug that I will not have anyone onboard who doesn’t have the right work ethic. He just nodded and said, “Same old Harvey.” But he agreed.

What exactly do we do? We train fathers. Not something that anyone thought would be required, but it’s amazing how many people come to us.

The problem is, you don’t get a manual when a baby is born, and there’s so much aimed at training mothers that fathers get left out. Doug had a whole group of mates who were absolutely petrified about their impending, or in some cases recent, fatherhood. When they found out that they could talk to someone, a man, who would give them help and advice, they jumped at the chance. More importantly, they were willing to pay for it.

They had found that their wives were too distracted to be of any help, and none of the other women involved in the child care industry seemed to care that much about the father. The man is barely acknowledged, perhaps getting some advice, but often just being told to remember what the woman has been told, to be repeated later if required.

I have two lovely daughters, and have learned many of the lessons the hard way. Having twins meant that we always both had to be involved and it’s given me an insight that I am happy to share. I’ve distilled it into a set of tips and tricks, and I’ve trained my assistants, who are fathers themselves, so that I’m confident they understand the job, and can teach our clients.

We take the new fathers through it all step by step, and show them how the little things make all the difference. My clients appreciate the attention to detail, and they want to learn. Our marketing is all word of mouth, often the wives of our customers tell their friends, and we even get the occasional repeat customer. The majority of my time is spent actually helping people. It is deeply fulfilling in a way my old job never quite managed.

I even have my own office, even if it’s really just the spare room.

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New Lives

New Lives

As I lay back, waiting for the pain to begin, I wondered if I’d have changed anything. I stared at the ceiling, the squares disappeared and I could see her beautiful face. My Pashmina.

#

I could still picture the first time I’d seen her in the flesh. She was standing at the top of the theatre stairs, the ideal of a perfect woman. Her hair was white and her skin translucent, as if someone had dressed up a marble statue of a Greek goddess. She was still, poised, ready to fly. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I’d wanted to see her. It was then that she stole my heart.

#

The first time I met her was a little while later. It was also at the theatre. I bumped into her on the stairs and knocked her drink. I insisted on buying her another and we started talking. My lines were weak, I could hardly believe she would give me any time, but she seemed to enjoy the attention. She later admitted she’d been stood up again, and I’d been a welcome distraction.

#

When I walked into her apartment, some weeks later of course, it was like going home. I knew where everything was. The tiny kitchen off the main room, the small bedroom, and the bathroom fitted into what might be a large cupboard in a different world.

#

We’d been sleeping together for a few months when she admitted the truth to me. “Paul,” she said, for that was what I’d told her my name was, “It is not safe to be with me; it’s my friends.”

“Friends?”

“With the underground.”

I’d known of course, but I was touched that she’d trust me enough to tell me. Perhaps she loved me? Or my love for her, so bright, so impossible to hide, led her to believe I thought I was safe. She told me everything, all about what she had done, what she was planning to do. I should have dissuaded her, or encouraged her, or reported her. I just listened and made my plans.

#

The first time I’d seen her face had been six months before. It was on the front page of her dossier. The photograph, a little grainy, showed a beautiful wraith. The description of her was so cold. Name: Pashmina Tun. Height: Five foot six inches. Skin colour: White (albino). Eyes: Blue. She was to be watched, Intelligence believed she had contacts with the underground. She was also clearly untrustworthy as she rarely ventured out during the day, preferring the night.

#

“Why don’t you go out during the day?”

“Silly, look at my skin.”

“Beautiful.”

She laughed, and said, “It burns in the faintest sun. I prefer to avoid the pain.”

Something I should add to her file perhaps.

“And you Paul, why do you prefer the dark?”

“It is filled with angels, or at least one…”

I could hardly tell her that it was the only time I knew she wasn’t watched, as it was my shift. I’d tried to tell myself I could explain my actions to my superiors as trying to get closer to my target. I doubted that would buy me any acceptance. Or mercy.

#

“Paul, what’s wrong?”

I was in a panic. I’d come in to my shift, to find that an order for Pashmina’s arrest had been made. I was to keep an extra eye on her, and she would be picked up the next morning when the Colonel had returned. I’d barely been able to wait for the previous watcher to leave before I rushed to her apartment, banging on the door like a crazy man.

“Pashmina, darling, you must leave.”

She’d talked about being ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but I knew she was quite incapable of it.

“Oh Paul, don’t be silly.”

How to explain to her? If I told her the truth, what would she do? She would cry. For some time. I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away. My panic grew. Time was being wasted. She wiped her eyes and looked at me.

“I loved you.”

“I love you.”

“Can I trust you?”

“You must, your life depends on it.”

She nodded. Her face was a statue again. Ice. We rushed around her tiny living space and collected some clothes and a few other things. I insisted that she be able to easily carry whatever she needed.

“Will you not be with me?”

Perhaps there was the start of forgiveness?

“Yes, of course, but what if we are separated? Or need to run?”

She assented. We left everything else, and went straight for the border.

“Paul, I’ll never get through, they’ll have my name.”

“Trust me.”

At the border post I showed my card. The guards saluted, and we drove through. At the other end Pashmina got out as instructed, approached the barrier and in broken English demanded asylum. I’d given her papers, transcripts. She’d be able to prove the state wanted her, and had bad plans for her. She’d be safe.

I reversed the car, and she turned. The look of confusion quickly replaced by comprehension. She took steps towards me, and then stopped. I was already out of her reach. I mouthed ‘I love you’. I’d given her everything I could, a start in a new country, a new life.

#

They arrested me at my post the next day. The guards had reported me, and the machinery of our repression, of which I’d been a cog, moved quickly. The horse had bolted, but they cared little for Pashmina, she was small fry. I was a traitor.

#

It was hard to picture her through my tears. My old life was gone. My love was gone. All I had now was a future of pain. First this ‘process’ as we so politely called it, and then a work camp.

“Begin.”

The electricity raced through me as the torture started. My new life had begun.

###

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Filed under Dark

The Dog Ate My Phone

This happened to me (the dog eating the phone bit, not the rest…)

 

The Dog Ate My Phone

“Did I ever tell you about the time the dog ate my phone?” said the rough voice.

Thomas Jensen looked up from his phone to see who was talking. The only person there was a tramp and he seemed to be staring straight at Thomas.

“Ah, no. Not that you’ve ever told me anything. And now…”

He tried to get up, but the tramp had moved so close he’d have to push him out of the way, and he really didn’t want to touch the man.

“Worst day of my life really. Best as well if truth be told. It freed me.”

“Oh, er, how?”

The tramp took this as an invitation to sit down, and start his tale.

“I’d left the dogs in the car. Two lovely chocolate Labradors. Beautiful. You have dogs?”

“No.”

“Great companions. Only problem, particularly with labs, is they’re hungry. I’d left my phone in the car, I don’t know why because I never left my phone anywhere. I left it in the little shelf in the door. Right next to some sweets.”

Thomas tried to look at his watch, but the tramp leant over.

“Dogs had never bothered with the sweets before? Do you know why they did that day?”

“No…”

The tramp leant back, “Nobody does. Anyway they went for the sweets, but the shelf was small and they struggled to get the sweets out, and got the phone first. Crunch. Little bits of glass all over the place. Phone dead. Kaput.”

“That’s very sad, but I have to…”

“Know why I couldn’t just get a new one?”

“Um.”

“Well I ordered one. Or asked my wife to. Same model. But you see the thing was, there was a delay. I wouldn’t have my phone for a week. Can you imagine?”

Thomas really couldn’t, he shook his head.

“My car wouldn’t recognise me. Couldn’t get into my front door, couldn’t buy anything. My virtual credit cards were all frozen until I got a new unit. I had an old one, but it took a different sim see, so they wouldn’t reactivate it. Or would, but it would take longer than the new phone. Do you think I could go to work?”

“Yes?” Thomas ventured.

“No. Front desk wouldn’t let me past, even if they did elevators wouldn’t have taken me anywhere.”

Thomas was starting to be interested despite himself, “But you told your boss?”

“How? No phone. No messenger. No email. I tried to call from the reception desk, but without my phone id to authenticate me… well he refused the call.”

Thomas shook his head sympathetically.

“Then they fired me. No payoff, failure to turn up for work. Except the firing bounced, no phone you see, so I didn’t find out directly. I found out from my wife. What did she do to help me I hear you ask?”

Thomas wondered if he would have asked, but it didn’t seem wise to argue.

“She called me a fool. She also told me to stop blaming the dog, he was suffering enough. I realised then the hierarchy in the house, and I didn’t like it. I said some things. I didn’t mean them, it was just the pressure. You know.”

Thomas tried to look sympathetic, and also as if he had somewhere else to go.

“Well, she said some things too. Then stormed out, taking the dog. Told me to call her when I’d grown up. That turned out to be hard.”

He paused.

“I think she’s in San Francisco now.”

“Um…”

“Anyway, so I was stuck. But only for a week I hear you say?”

Thomas nodded.

“If only. You see she’d ordered the new phone in her name. Now if she’d been around we could have swapped the sims and heydee ho, with a couple of hours, on her phone of course, to customer services it would have all been fine. I had to break into the house. I was watching. Saw it delivered, they wouldn’t have given it to me, and broke in. Big mistake.”

“Why?”

“The house called the cops. That expensive security system I put in. Tied to our phones. I grabbed the phone and ran. And ran, hoping to fit my sim in. Couldn’t, cos of it being in my wife’s name and all, but kept it with my while I wandered. Found myself in the backend of the city. Tough times. I learned a lot. First thing was to drop the new phone, even without my sim it had a tracker and they were trying to find it. I paid for really good security you see. Met some people, learned how to live without the phone, without id, and money. Hard life. Good life.”

The man looked wistful, and Thomas thought he might have a chance to get away.

“Ah, well, that’s a good thing to know. I need to run I’m afraid.”

He indicated his phone, as if he’d had a message. The old man misunderstood.

“Oh no, I don’t want your phone. Don’t need one. Just wanted to share the story, maybe it can help. Wanted to help someone today of all days.”

Thomas hesitated, but had to ask, “Why today?”

“I’m dead today. Legally. After thirty years, all of the automatic payments and suchlike I’d put into place have finally ground to a halt, and the world, your world, has decided I’m dead. Saw the notice while watching one of those demo phones.”

“Um.”

“Go now. No use you wasting time listening to a dead man. But take care of that phone.”

###

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Filed under Flash Fiction

Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

This one came to me after a week’s holiday in Spain…

 

Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

By Jason Gibbs

“Thank you for smoking. Loved that film.”

“Film?”

“Old 2D movie, probably way before your time… anyway there’s this great scene where Aaron Eckhart’s character, who represents the tobacco companies, is explaining how his product kills more people than alcohol and guns.”

“Tobacco?”

“Yeah, you know smoking it? Seriously do they teach you nothing in school these days?”

“Um, yes, I see here it used to cause millions of deaths a year.”

“Yes.”

“More than your clients.”

“Exactly my point, exactly.”

“So it was banned, and alternatives found and now far fewer people die from it?”

“No, no, that’s the opposite lesson. Tobacco was rehabilitated, it’s used in all sorts of things now, paper, a lot of medicines. Tobacco production has grown for the last decade, even while smoking has been consigned to the wilderness of history.”

“Um, so your clients. You think they can be rehabilitated?”

“Of course. But first we need to stop painting them as evil. They do what they do, we just need to find a way of making it less, deadly.”

“But you admit they’ve killed a lot of people?”

“Billions according to some estimates.”

“So…”

“Does that justify wiping them from the planet? No. Are they an existential threat to us? Definitely not. They kill far fewer than they used to, and I think with a little research we can bring that number down to zero. I really do.”

“That requires investment.”

“Yes, and for us to stop this massacre. Do you know what the death toll related to the current programme is?”

“Human?”

“So species centric. Yes, human.”

“No, I thought…”

“Three thousand. So far. Accidents, chemical poisoning etc. That’s more than my clients killed last year and the year before put together.”

“OK, but…”

“But nothing. We stop the massacre, we put resources into finding a prophylactic. Everybody’s happy, the world is a better place.”

“And you have to find new clients?”

“There’s always more clients. And if I win this… well, the sky’s no longer a limit.”

“Who’s paying you?”

“First good question you’ve asked. There’s a lot people. They don’t necessarily agree with my clients, but they think their destruction is unwarranted. Something like, I don’t agree with what you do, but I will give my life to defend your right to do so…”

“Sartre?”

“Apparently not.”

“Ouch. What is that?”

“Might be a bite. If it is, you might want to stop scratching it.”

“Wait, are you telling me some of your clients are in here?”

“Of course. Couldn’t probably represent them if they weren’t here now could I?”

“And one of them bit me?”

“May have, no proof…”

“Um, do they carry malaria?”

“We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on that.”

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