This story was longlisted but unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. Still, it is always nice to know that I was in with a real chance. Here is the story:
Language is Important
“Dear Sir, it has come to my attention that modern society, at least the less educated part of it, is having some difficulties in determining the correct usages of there, their and they’re. I therefore propose that we do away with all three of these words and replace them with ‘ther’, this will make communications much less painful to read, at least once the new word gets bedded in.”
He sat back and looked contentedly at the letter. He still had it.
“Morris, you’re not writing sarcastic angry letters are you?”
“No dear, of course not.”
“You are, I can tell. Come down darling, morning tea is ready. I have some crumpets for you.”
“I’ll be right down.”
He got up stiffly and reached over for his Zimmer. Damn this weak body. By the time he got downstairs the damned crumpets would be cold, and if there’s one thing he hated it was cold crumpets. Hmm, there might be a lewd joke in there somewhere. He was too tired to find it.
He whizzed down the stairs. Glacially. He damned his weak body for the umpteenth time that day.
“I expect the crumpets are cold.”
Mary looked at him reproachfully.
“Morris, we have been married many long years, and in all that time I’ve learned a few things about you. One is that you like your crumpets hot. Not least because you moan like a stuck pig when they aren’t.”
Oops, she was in one of those moods.
“Sorry, that’s wonderful Mary. Thank you. It’s that bloody stair lift. It needs a rocket. Or at least a stronger motor.” He stopped and looked contemplatively into the middle distance.
“Don’t you dare think of such a thing Morris!”
She fairly screeched.
He shook his head as she went on.
“That stair lift cost a pretty penny, and we can’t afford a new one, or the repairs after your tinkering.”
She looked at him sternly, in vain hope that he’d listen, before deciding a change of subject would be more effective.
“English Breakfast for you this morning. Ah, and that’s the sound of the crumpets, I’ll just get them.”
He sipped his tea, and then tucked into the crumpets when they arrived. Mary has smothered them in butter just the way he liked them. Silence reigned over the household while they both enjoyed their elevenses in a truly civilised manner.
“Now Morris, you do remember that young Charlie is coming today.”
He’d tried to explain that the tumour was having no effect on his memory, but her Aunt Jessica had lost her marbles when she’d had a brain tumour and Mary assumed that would happen to him too.
“Yes Mary. I’ve been looking forward to the visit since he suggested it. He is such a wonderfully inventive boy.”
He looked over at Mary, wondering what their own children might have been like. Those years had passed and Mary had invested her energy in her nieces and nephews. Charlie was their nephew by her, now departed, elder brother.
The bell rang, and Mary answered the door.
“Morning Mr Charlie.”
Charlie looked at her distractedly and said, “Morning”, before rushing over to shake his hand. “Morris you look great!”
“So you’ve spoken to my oncologist then.”
He looked nonplussed.
“You only use the word great when you’re hiding particularly bad news.”
“Well Morris, the thing is… may I sit down?”
“Of course. Mary can you get Charlie a cup of tea?”
“Yes Morris.” She looked a little disappointed at Charlie’s treatment of her.
“Morris, we’ve talked about this before.”
He gestured towards Mary.
“Have we? What did we say?”
“Look. I know it’s hard. But she’s been dead for nearly five years now. Naming your household robot after her, and then hacking it so it goes along with your games…”
He gave Charlie a hard look.
“Well. It just makes other things more difficult. That’s all. Still, I’m glad it’s not wearing her clothes this time.”
Morris shook his head.
Mary, or the house robot, depending on your point of view, provided Charlie with a cup of tea and then tactfully retreated into the kitchen. That would allow the men to talk.
“Charlie, lay it out straight. I’m an old man, and I spend so much of my time waiting for things, so please don’t join the ranks of the armies of delay.”
“Well Morris, you, I mean your body, is not responding to the treatment. They reckon you might have another six weeks.”
“They’re also mighty ticked off with you for refusing to speak to them.”
“Damned vultures. Worse than vultures, at least vultures are honest. Instead they play with their words. They use medical terms, or normal words but somehow changed, warped so that they are heavy with meaning, but only to them. When they have to say anything in something approaching English they hedge and caveat until it’s impossible to pin it down. Also, I’d always remember both a witty put-down and an important question several days after each appointment.”
“I do appreciate you going to the appointments for me. I will make sure you’re looked after.”
Charlie waved away the offer. He wasn’t doing it for a reward.
They sat in silence for a little while.
“So Charlie, make your pitch again.”
“Morris, I’ve tried so many times, you’ve made it clear that you aren’t interested.”
“Ah, a new tactic, I like it. Make me negotiate against myself. It won’t work you know.”
“Did you at least read the literature I sent you?”
Morris paused. He could tell that young Charlie, if anyone approaching fifty years of age could be called young, was genuinely worried about him, and he felt a tiny bit guilty at the way he was treating him. But it did have the positive of being at least a little entertaining.
“Ah ha, another nice ploy. Silence. OK, I’ll bite. I read it, and I have to admit to being intrigued.”
“No need to look so surprised nephew of mine, I’m not completely resigned to a journey across the Styx just yet.”
“Ah. You do realise…”
“That it doesn’t stop me being dead? Yes. The documents, in their flowery and somewhat euphemistic manner made that clear, if more tangentially than I’d have been happy with.”
“Right. But will you do it? I mean, I don’t mean to push, but…”
“It’ll take a week or two to arrange, and a week or two to actually do, and with the latest from those vultures I don’t have much more than that. Yes, yes.”
He was starting to feel as testy as he sounded. Tiredness probably. This body had served him well for so many years; it was so disappointing that it would fail him like this.
“Morris….” Charlie gently rocked him awake again.
“What? Yes, sorry. Tactic of my own, doesn’t always work though. Before I’m forced to use it again, the answer is yes, make it happen.”
Charlie beamed at the old man, who drifted back to sleep with the smile.
A week later he bid farewell to Mary one last time, and was driven to the institute. Or should that be Institute? He didn’t want to give it too much weight, it was to be his final resting place, in at least one sense, and he felt that it should have some irreverence.
He was wheeled in. Charlie was waiting, gripped his hand and wished him luck, before gently stepping away. Morris was then presented to the head man, Dr Surguet.
“Dr Tramferline, it is such a pleasure to meet you!”
“Ah yes, your famous informality. Of course, Morris.”
“It is not informality, it is my name, the other is merely a hook, a way for strangers to pigeonhole me. Given what you are going to do to me shortly, I prefer not to view you as a stranger, and your use of the title would create that impression.”
“Sharp. Yes, excellent. I can see why Charlie was so keen to have you on the program. Obviously you’ve already been through the first set of tests, required before you could even be considered. I’m afraid we will need to run a rather more extreme set of tests now, some of which will feel like repeats. Once that is done you will have a final chance to ask questions, and confirm your approval, and we shall proceed.”
Morris looked at him, and realised that he’d been dismissed. He’d wanted to engage in some form of wordplay at least, but the busy Dr Surguet clearly had other things to do. He nodded, and was wheeled out again.
They laid him on the table gently. There was a cute young nurse. Dark hair and stunning blue eyes, he felt he could get lost in them. He told her, and she smiled at him kindly. In the old days he’d have serenaded her, and she’d have been putty in his hands. Now he was putty in hers as she hooked him up to wires, tubes and straps. He was must have drifted off a few times because she mutated into a strikingly hard faced, but still attractive, red head, and then a large, hairy, and quiet-spoken man, before returning, eyes shining.
“Congratulations old boy, great news, you’ve passed all the tests, they’re ready for you.”
“You said great again Charlie. What’s the problem?”
Charlie seemed a little shocked, both at the weakness of his croaking, and that he’d spotted the bad news.
“Well, I’m afraid they don’t believe they can unhook you from this equipment, that is if you do decide not to go ahead with the process.”
“Damned vultures…” he started coughing, or was it laughing. The nice little brunette came in and gave him some water. When he’d recovered he winked at her and said, “I hear you’ve made sure I have to stay with you forever.”
She smiled and went back to monitoring all the systems which now surrounded him. He noticed that there seemed to be many more boxes and wires and tubes. There were bings, and beeps and other sounds coming from him, forming a soft lullaby.
“Sorry Charlie, what were you asking?”
“Are you willing to proceed with the transition?”
“Yes Charlie. Goodbye, and see you on the other side. Oh, and if it doesn’t work, take a look at my bookshelf, there are a few gifts there for you.”
Charlie’s eyes seemed to sparkle, and then darkness smothered him.
He awoke to the gentle susurration of the machines. There were fewer bings, and more whirring.
“Morris!” he growled.
“Morris, it’s so great to see you,” said Charlie.
“Druid fish. Cake.”
Charlie looked round at the nurse. Perhaps he caught the glimpse of dismay on her face before the professional mask returned, but his smile faded. She scurried out, and returned with Dr Surguet.
Meanwhile he’d been trying to speak to Morris.
“Morris, are you ok?”
“Peter. Nylon book and captive redundancy.”
He tried again, but each time the machine returned nonsense.
Dr Surguet arrived and listened for a short time. Then he put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder in a kindly gesture.
“Charlie, I’m sorry. The transfer hasn’t worked.”
“What? Why? You said he was perfect.”
“Now Charlie, I said a perfect candidate, but he was old, and very ill. Perhaps if we’d transferred him earlier…”
Charlie bowed his head.
“So what do we do?”
“I’m afraid we have to turn the machine off. “
At this the machine which contained some form of Morris started to make a lot more noise,
“Halibut! Purple Antigone!”
The doctor turned to Charlie and shook his head in sympathy, and then led him out. Morris tried desperately to call them back, but they seemed to ignore everything he said. His last words as they flicked the switch were, “There. Their. Ther.”