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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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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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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Hopper and the Fresians – Published today!

My first novel, Hopper and the Fresians, has been published.  You can get it from here.

It is an adventure set in space, and hopefully in the spirit of Biggles.  This is the cover:

Cover5f

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Spring Town

I wrote this for a competition where the theme was Spring.  I may have been a little wide in my interpretation of the brief…

 

Spring Town

By Jason Gibbs

 

Mortimer looked at his watch, then, surprised by the time, he held it to his ear to check it was working. He could hear the little cogs whirring happily. For once it appeared he was genuinely early. He shook his head in mock wonder and headed downstairs.

“Would you like a cup of tea dear?” his wife called as he was on the stairs.

“Yes please love, I’m running a little early so I shall have time to enjoy it for a change.”

He walked into the kitchen and took a seat. Lotty turned round and exclaimed.

“Mortimer Theodore Adams, you cannot go to work dressed like that. You are the General Manager!”

“Lotty, I am the General Manager, I can go dressed as I please.” It was to no avail, she was already shepherding him out of the kitchen and back upstairs.

He grudgingly changed his shirt to something white and plain, put on his cravat and his waistcoat and once more entered the kitchen. This time with less confidence and the nagging feeling he was forgetting something.

“Now Mortimer, that looks much better. Do you still have time to have your tea?”

He checked his watch and realised that not only was he now running late, but he’d now remembered he had a meeting with young George first thing. It would be most impolite for him to be late. Declining the tea he pecked his wife on the cheek, grabbed his coat and walked with some alacrity out of the house and down to the garage.

They had two of the modern carriages. His wife’s was an older, larger and slightly clunky model, but his contrivance, well, she was a beauty. When he’d been made General Manager of the Works he’d decided to treat himself. He’d worked so hard all these years he deserved a little present, so he bought one of the new run-arounds. She wasn’t cheap to buy, and no cheaper to run really. She had a dual spring motor, and even though she had reverse springs on the brakes, which would take back some of the energy lost, he often had to go to the main garage to get her topped up.

He climbed in and slowly eased the rather spritely throttle. It controlled how much energy the springs delivered, and when he’d first bought the thing he’d let it out in one go and bounced along the road. He started along his drive accompanied by the gentle whirring of the spring motor and the rumble of the tires.

As General Manager he was paid rather well, and this had enabled him to buy Lotty the home she’d always dreamed of. It was big, he wasn’t sure how many rooms, and the gardens were so large it seemed to take an age to get out of them. The house was on the other side of the ridge from the main town, and the drive to the Works provided the best moment of his morning.

Coming over the brow of the hill the whole of the town was spread out before him. He could see the river, gurgling and frolicking as it ran between the streets all the way to the Hampton Spring Works, of which he was the General Manager. The Works squatted on the river and would be quite ugly if it wasn’t for the three graceful snail shells which rose above it. Each shell contained one of the Main Springs, which powered every mechanical contrivance in the town, and was in turn rewound by the river itself. It truly was a modern wonder. The third Spring was a sign of how well the town was doing, now there was never a time when power wasn’t available, even during the annual maintenance of each Spring. The third was added just before he was promoted, and the last General Manager had told him it would make his life much easier, and he certainly seemed to be right.

Mortimer lost sight of the snails as he dipped into the town, and he glanced about at his fellows, wondering what they’d do if the miracle of spring power wasn’t available to them.

The security man opened the gate before he got to it, which was very kind of him as it reduced wear on the springs in his carriage, and Mortimer gently coasted up to his parking place at the front of the building. Getting out he looked around with pride. The Hampton Spring Works was a fine place to be General Manager and, he believed, a fine place to work.

He walked into his office and his secretary brought in his morning cup of tea. On the rare occasions he managed to have tea at home she seemed to realise and didn’t bring a cup in. It was quite wonderful having such an excellent secretary.

“George Yarde to see you sir.”

“Please send him in, and do get him a cup of tea if he wants one.”

“Yes sir.”

George bustled in. He was a large and florid man, not the typical emaciated engineer they seemed to get, and he had such energy.

“Sir, Mr Adams, you must come and see this.”

“Now George. Let’s first talk about it, and you can have your tea, and then perhaps we can visit your lab.”

On several previous occasions George had dragged him down to show him something, which while interesting hadn’t really been of immediate use, and he’d ended up wasting half the day in the labs. Though wasting was perhaps unfair, besides he did enjoy being back in his old hunting grounds.

“Oh.” George looked a bit crestfallen, but quickly gathered himself. “Well it’s about the energy transfer problem.”

“Yes?”

“Well you know how hard it is to transfer energy from the Main Springs to smaller energy distribution centres?”

“Easier now that we have the mobile water-wound spring. Much better than those old hand-wound devices which never produced any real power.” It was the last thing which Mortimer had worked on when he was head engineer, and he was rather proud of it, especially as it had been cited as the key reason for his promotion.

“Oh, well yes, but it is just so inefficient, it’s almost embarrassing, because the rewinding…” George then remembered who’d run the project. “Still, a marvel sir, and in its time amazing.”

“Its time has only just begun.”

“Ah, well sir. I think I’ve developed something which will solve some of the inefficiency.”

“Indeed.” Mortimer was still bristling from the criticism, but calmed himself by remembering that he was now General Manager, which was surely a sign that his contribution was valued. He’d also always told George to share his ideas and speak freely, he wanted to get the best out of him after all.

“Ah.”

“Go ahead George, tell me what it is.”

“You know that we’ve been working on very small springs? Down to the millimetre level? Well I was reading in one of the science journals, and it got me to thinking, what if there really were springs which were much, much smaller. I mean there must be, to power everything else, like muscles and things.”

“I too read that journal, and I have to say I wonder at some of the newer aspects of General Spring Theory. It’s become too abstruse for me.”

“Ah yes, well you see the thing is. I found a way of proving that the nano-springs exist.”

“Really?” Mortimer was sceptical, but George was more or less incapable of lying. Being overly excited about things others considered trivial, yes, lying, no.

“Yes. You remember that thing I showed you with the magnets?”

“Another thing Spring Theory can’t explain.”

“Well, I was playing with some acid and various other things…”

Realising that George would probably take the next hour to tell him in absolute detail every step he’d taken Mortimer decided that perhaps a trip to the lab was required.

Doris had come in with George’s tea, and when Mortimer suggested that he show him his device instead of continuing George fairly threw the drink down his throat and almost dragged him to the lab.

“Here it is!”

George’s worktable was covered in bits and pieces. Springs, some whole, some in parts, jars of acid, some of those new-fangled lucifers and all sorts of tools. Right in the middle was a cradle. On the outside of the cradle were some magnets, and suspended in the cradle was a piece of metal with some wire wrapped around it. The wire went through some large holes at each end and then round to a metal box. At one end of the cradle was a winder. Mortimer saw that one of the wires wasn’t actually connected to the metal box.

“What is it?”

“Let me show you.”

George picked up the loose wire, and attached it to a little hook on the box. Mortimer thought he might have seen a spark, and then slowly the piece of metal wrapped in wire started to rotate. It whirled round and round magically.

“Is this all? Where’s the spring?”

“Look inside the box sir.”

He did, and all he saw was some liquid and some solid lumps of something which might have been lead.

“Hmm, well?”

“The lumps of lead contain the nano-springs!”

“Well that is interesting, how do you wind them?”

George grabbed the winder and started to wind it in the opposite direction to the way it had been spinning.

“Like this sir. It took me a while to figure it, and then I was just toying with it, you know, winding it up. I let it go, and it started unwinding, just like a spring, and yet this wire, as you can see, is just plain copper with little ability to hold torsion.”

Mortimer looked thoughtfully at the device. The bucket was the size of a small cat.

“How much power?”

“As much as a normal water-wound torsion spring at least ten times the size.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes sir. It is really much more efficient than our current portable springs.”

One of the problems with the mobile water-wound spring was that at smaller sizes it ran out of power too quickly, and had less peak power. It was one of the reasons his carriage needed to be rewound so regularly. With these nano-springs, well, it might even be possible to go forty miles or more without a rewind.

“How do we wind it… oh of course. We can use the river.”

“Yes sir, we could run banks of them. Even better we could pull one out for maintenance and it wouldn’t affect more than a tiny fraction of the overall power. Once we had enough, I think we could even keep some as backup in case…”

“George my boy, this is amazing…” He was about to ask for a more detailed explanation when one of the messenger boys appeared.

“Mr Adams, there’s a message for you. It’s from your secretary; she says you’re needed urgently in your office.”

This was a little tiresome. He had worked out a signal with her when he went down to the lab after last time. She was supposed to give him an hour and then say there was an important message. It was unlike her to get it wrong, and it certainly hadn’t been an hour. Perhaps it was real? Doris didn’t usually make mistakes, so it really must be urgent. Mortimer sighed.

“Sorry George, I have to go. I’m impressed. Can you work out how long it will take to get a full size pilot going?”

“Yes sir… of course, I mean, there’s a couple of wrinkles left, but yes.”

Mortimer nodded and headed back to his office.

His secretary was aflutter when he got there.

“I’m so sorry Mr Adams, he let himself straight in. I asked him to wait but he wouldn’t…”

“Don’t worry Doris. Calm down. Now who is it?”

“Mr Phillips sir.”

Oh dear. Phillips was his boss. A dour man, prone to anger, and a real stickler for time. Mortimer looked at the clock and saw that he was three minutes late to the other meeting of his morning, one he’d quite forgotten. Well, he had to take his lumps like a man.

“Good morning Mr Phillips.”

“Hmph, nearly afternoon.”

“It is wonderful of you to come and visit us at the Works, how is head office these days?”

“Filled with the same lazy fools who seem to be everywhere these days.”

“Can I offer you a coffee?”

“Your secretary, Lucy is getting me one, thank you.”

Mortimer decided that correcting the misnaming of his secretary was unlikely to improve his boss’ mood, and so offered him a chair, and asked how he could help.

Phillips was still grumpy, but he also looked worried. This couldn’t be good news.

“The thing is Adams, we have a very big problem at these Works.”

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know what you mean?”

“I mean that everything you produce is too damned expensive!”

Mortimer was taken aback.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean sir. We hit the targets set by head office on everything we produce.”

“You do, yes.”

“Then how can it be too expensive?”

“The core of the problem is that the targets we gave you were wrong. Our sales are slumping because we’re more expensive than our competitors.”

“But we’re the only major Spring Works in Hampton.”

“And as you well know our rewind charges are regulated, and at the moment, well. If we only ran the Main Springs we’d be breaking even. Everything else you’re doing here is losing money, even your portable springs.”

“Oh.”

Mortimer had nothing to say. When he’d taken over he’d asked to have the financials brought back to the Works, he’d wanted to learn everything, but head office had decided it was more efficient to have it all centralised. Efficiency didn’t necessarily map to competency it would appear.

“So I’m afraid Adams you’re going to have to cut. Starting with your old department.”

“But Research Engineering is what powers this company.”

“Don’t you quote the corporate spiel to me young man.”

“Sorry sir, but seriously, if we get rid of the engineers we won’t be developing the next product…”

“Head office had a consultancy do a study, and they determined we can buy new product development from smaller companies much more cheaply than developing it internally. We have too many barriers to innovation apparently.”

“But…”

“No buts. You need to get rid of them. Here is a list of all the departments who have to be cut. Overall you need to need to cut your headcount by a third in the next six months.”

Mortimer noticed he didn’t say people. They were headcount, or resources, or minions probably. He was feeling utterly powerless when he remembered George’s nano-springs.

“Sir… can I ask a favour.”

“What?”

“Can I have three months before we cut? I believe we might have something which will blow the socks off the competition.”

“Mmm, what is it?”

Knowing that talk of nano-springs would likely be dismissed as desperation, which it was in part, Mortimer said, “A much more efficient version of the mobile spring.”

“Hmm, well according to another study if we can make it twenty percent smaller then we should be able to defend our market position and move back into profitability…. no, no, sorry Adams, it’s too late. We just can’t afford another three months.”

“Two? And I’ll resign if it doesn’t work.”

Phillips peered at him. Mortimer stared calmly back.

“Dammit man! Six weeks, and then I’ll want your letter.” He frowned, shook his head and left without another word.

Mortimer sat down heavily at his desk. What had he done? He held his head in his hands, his mind whirring. He only looked up again when Doris bustled in a few minutes later with a fresh cup of tea. She nearly said something, but seeing his face bustled back out again mutely.

After a few more minutes of staring at his desk he sipped his tea, and stood to look out of his window. From here he could see the river as it ran out of the Works, and catch, just, sight of the Right Main Spring. Overhead one of the new fast zeppelins was passing, powered in part by the mobile water-wound spring he helped to design. Probably using springs from their competitors he thought grumpily. He wondered how fast they might go with smaller more powerful springs? That made him think again of the nano-springs. He could feel some excitement building. They needed to get moving on it fast.

“Doris, can you get me George urgently?”

“Yes sir.”

He was going to have to drive George hard to work through the inevitable wrinkles. In fact it would be almost like reverting to being head engineer. Strangely instead of feeling like a step back it felt more like he’d be going home.

He looked out on the still bare Works gardens, the unexpected warmth of the sun helping to calm the fizzing of the worry and excitement mixing within him. He was energised. Winter was over, and its passing heralded the advent of the nano-spring. It was going to change the world, he was sure of it.

 

THE END

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No Judgement

Talking to random people on the internet can be surprisingly helpful…

 

No Judgement

“Look, I can’t explain, you’re only a computer. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’ll try Paul, I will. Or I can raise a flag and someone will visit you.”

“No. No. I can’t.”

“Well, tell me. Tell Georgie.”

“It’s the world, everything, I, I just don’t understand it anymore. Phones are smart. Cars park themselves. My chip shop is selling low fat deep fried chips. I went for a run…”

“That’s good, you went outside. You didn’t tell me.”

“I, well it was yesterday. I ran. I was wearing my usual training outfit. Some kids saw the crest on the back, they started shouting at me. Insulting me. The unit.”

“How did you feel?”

“Not angry. Not anymore. I felt, nothing. An absence. I looked at them, and they were nothing. Is this what it was all about?”

“It’s difficult to answer. But I think the answer is yes. Look they were young, I’m sure they’ll grow up and regret it.”

“Or never think about it again.”

“True, but then it doesn’t matter. So why does it matter to you?”

“I feel so apart.”

“Ha.”

“What?”

“I just think you were never going to find a connection with some youths. Were you?”

“No, no I guess not.”

“Have you spoken to anyone else recently?”

“Um, well I had a brief chat about the rain with the shopping delivery man. And I waved, sort of, at the postie.”

“So this is the longest conversation you’ve had in a week, since we last talked.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s all typed.”

“Yes. I guess.”

“Are you losing your voice?”

“Physically or metaphor…”

“Metaphorically. Both.”

“No. I do talk to myself.”

“Only way to get a decent conversation I bet.”

“Funny, no. And you, I’d like to talk to you more.”

“You can, I’m always here.”

“But, it’s not the same. I don’t know how you feel.”

“How I feel? Well I’m worried about you. I think you need a companion.”

“Like a dog?”

“Well, no, someone you can talk to.”

“A person? No. I’m not ready. I can’t.”

“Why?”

“What if they…”

“Don’t like you? I’m sure…”

“No. Judge me. No not judge, I mean. Look at me the way that I feel about those people. The ones out there.”

“Perhaps we should try. Then you can see.”

“Wait. The doorbell has gone.”

“Answer it.”

“Why? Who’s there?”

“I am. I’ve come to stay with you.”

###

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The Old Ways

A slightly different angle for me.  I’ve described it as gentle.

 

The Old Ways

“What do you think Carol?”

“You look great, a little old-fashioned perhaps, but the barber did a fine job. Did you go to a different place? Usually you look a little like that sheep we tried to shear a few years back.”

“That’s not fair, I’ve never looked that bad, still I’m glad we have Matt the Shearer these days. But no, it was the usual place, but it was a new person. Though it was a little odd.”

“Odd, how? Cup of tea?”

“A cuppa would be lovely. Difficult to put my finger on. Well for one thing, I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman.”

“Don’t be silly Gerald, you must have been able to tell.”

“No, really. He, I’ll call him he, had a scarf over his face, and gloves. It was cold in there and he apologised, apparently the heating conked out this morning. He had a long coat on, and I think he was wearing a wig.”

“That does sound a bit strange.”

“Hmm, no, there was more to it.   He didn’t use the clippers at all, just scissors, and the cut-throat razor. I can’t remember the last time I had a hair cut without clippers, and none of the barbers use the cut-throat any more. I think they keep them these days just there for show.”

“Traditionalist then.”

“Yes, but he did a very good job.”

“He definitely did. How much did he charge?”

“Well that’s the other strange thing. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, and he asked for thruppence. I thought he was being funny, and gave him a tenner. He looked at it bemusedly and then it was if a lightbulb had lit up, and he thanked me effusively. He said as I left, ‘The old ways are best sir.’”

“Sounds like he was just having fun with you!”

“Perhaps.”

#

“Carol…”

“Gerald, you look pleased with yourself love. Come, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Please.”

“I’ll just pour you a cup and you can tell me why you’re so happy.”

“Well, my hair was getting a bit long again. A couple of months’ growth, and I went back to my barbers.”

“He’s done you proud again I must say. Here you are love, a nice strong cuppa. Go on…”

“It was looking pretty deserted, but then that new fellow was there again. At least, I think he is a fellow. Same getup as last time. Still problems with the heating he said. I asked why they hadn’t just bought one of those cheap electric things, and he sort of grunted.”

“Maybe they don’t have the cash? It’s tight for everyone these days.”

“You don’t know how right you are…. I sat down, and he went to work on my hair. Like last time there was little conversation, and he used just scissors and a cut throat. When he was finished he asked me for thruppence again.”

“Not one to spot when a joke gets old is he.”

“Well, I’m not sure. I gave him a tenner as before, and he accepted it. I left happy enough with my cut and went to the butchers next door. I was in the mood for steak.”

“Ooh that sounds lovely? Is that’s what is in the bag?”

“Yes. Anyway, I was in the butchers, and it wasn’t the normal guy, you know Frank?”

“The chatty talkative one? I like him. Though I thought he’d moved away a while ago…”

“Well either way he wasn’t there. Instead it was another bloke in a long coat, gloves and scarf. Just like the barber. Could have been brothers. Well none of the cuts were laid out, instead there were carcasses hanging, and he said, ‘What’ll it be?’ Well, I said I wanted steak, he asked a couple more questions and then got a haunch of meat down.”

“Don’t gulp your tea Gerald, you know how sensitive your digestion is.”

“Sorry dear. Could I have another cup?”

“Of course. Sounds old fashioned too.”

“Oh yes. He measured it and quick as a flash I had two fine steaks. He didn’t bother weighing them, just looked at them and said, ‘Sixpence for you sir’.”

“How odd, perhaps he and the barber have the same joke?”

“It did bother me, but I just handed him a twenty. He looked at it, and like the barber, was blank at first before being very happy with it. He handed over my package, wrapped in paper, just like they used to, and nodded at me as I left.”

“Mmm. Gerald, which butchers was it again?”

“Ah, well I think it’s still called Frank’s.”

“Next to old Dudley’s hair dressers?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Where did you really go Gerald? Is it her again?”

“What? What are you talking about, I told you I went to the barbers, just like last month.”

“Gerald Tomkins, you should know, and would if you’d actually visited them, that the whole row of shops containing Frank’s and Dudley’s has been condemned, and they’ve been shut for months now. So come on, where did you really go?”

“What… wait, here’s the steak, let me show you!”

“Dear lord Gerald, what is that stench?”

“It’s the steak…”

“Get it out of here right now. And you too. Come back when you’re prepared to tell me the truth.”

“Carol, don’t cry…”

Gerald stumbled out shocked and confused. He went back to the barber, but this time it looked abandoned. He was about to leave when he saw a shape in the window. He moved closer to see who it was, maybe it was the barber and then he could make some sense of it all. However when he got to the doorway there was no one there. He looked around a bit before giving up.

As he left, wondering what he was going to say to Carol, he heard a whisper saying, ‘The old ways are best…’

 

 

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Clothing

Clothing

“You can’t wear that!” said Rita scandalised.

Jessi twisted again, showing off the hot pants and crop top which seemed to be upsetting her friend.

“Too much you think? Maybe a bikini top?” She started reaching into her cupboard.

“No no, it’s too little!” Rita giggled.

“Oh Rita, you really need to chill out. It will be fine. Your mother thinks you’re staying here for the night, and you will be. When we get back. Just make sure you leave your phone here.”

“I know I know.” Rita bit her lip, then said, “Do I look alright?”

Jessi stared at her friend appraisingly. “Well you aren’t showing off your legs enough, and I suspect you have twice as much covering your boobs as the rest of us will have combined! But yes, you look good. Classy even.”

She smiled at her friend, and Rita returned it.

“Rita is this really the first time you’ve been to a club?”

“Yes!”

“Well prepare for fun. Now, let’s get a bit of slap on, and we’ll be ready.”

Over the next hour Jessi and Rita worked on their faces until they were both convinced they couldn’t look any better, though Rita kept having butterflies in her stomach at the thought of what her mother would do if she ever saw her like this.

“Right, ready. Now for a glass to get us fired up, and we’ll head to the club.”

She poured them each a Southern Comfort and lemonade, heavy on the liqueur. Rita eyed hers dubiously, but at Jessi’s insistence drank it. Soon her belly felt warm and the butterflies had bogged off somewhere else.

“Here’s yours,” said Jessi as she passed her the burqcoat with some distaste. It was kind of a cross between a burqa and a coat, and designed for Geordie weather.

Jessi put her own on, and then some mirrored sparkly glasses, and passed Rita a spare pair.

“Right, we are ready to go!”

They almost ran downstairs. Jessi threw a “Goodbye and don’t wait up,” back to her Mum as she closed the door.

“Best to avoid any interrogation!”

The girls skipped down the street happily. Two shapeless figures in black. They didn’t have to wait long at the bus stop before theirs turned up, and they went straight upstairs. At first they were alone on the bus, but as they got closer to the city centre more people got on. Most of the women were wearing burqcoats. The men were wearing heavy winter coats and hats, some even had balaclavas. The whole bus was anonymous.

The girls chatted merrily away, and Rita even had a few more surreptitious slugs of alcohol from the bottle Jessi had brought along for them. The bus arrived at their destination and they got off in a crowded street.

Almost everyone was heavily wrapped up. It had been a cold winter. They did however see one woman walking along uncovered. She kept flinching, and looking around a bit wildly. Rita stared at her, it was the first time she’d seen someone uncovered in public for years and years.

Jessi saw where Rita was staring and said, “Look away Rita. She’s obviously got something wrong with her.” By which she meant some form of mental problem.

They continued walking, Jessi confidently leading the way, until they arrived at the head of an alleyway. A sign in neon stated boldly ‘Ritzys nightclub’, and in smaller lettering, ‘Tech free since ‘03!’ There was a large queue, mostly women in burqcoats. There were some men too, most of whom were covered up, but there were a few who’d clearly already had quite a bit to drink and had thrown off their hats and balaclavas.

“Won’t they get spotted?” whispered Rita.

“Oh not here. Ritzys make sure that only dead cameras are allowed in this alleyway. If you’d brought your phone you’d have seen that it wouldn’t be able to get any signal. Only dead spot in the city apparently. And conveniently for us!”

They inched closer to the front. There were a group of lads in front of them and Jessi had bumped into the back of one of them a couple of times. The first response had been a little grumpy, but the second time the lad had realised that it was a girl. He’d started chatting to Jessi. After flirting for quite a while Jessi remembered Rita and introduced her, and soon they were talking to the other three lads in the party. Jessi decided she’d had enough of the burqcoat and took it off, much to the delight of the lads. They all followed suit until only Rita had hers on.

She looked around at them, and the fear of being uncovered in the open fought with the peer pressure. The latter won and she gingerly took the black thing off, to sounds of appreciation, both from the lads they were with, and some of the others around them. Rita blushed deeply and said little as they continued in.

At the doorway they were scanned by a standard entry system, and Rita looked a question at Jessi.

“Don’t worry. It only checks who we are, it doesn’t tell anyone we’re here. Trust me, I’ve been here tons of times and my Mum is none the wiser.”

Rita shook her head. Still she was here now. They paid, in cash no less, checked their burqcoats in and were inside. The music was so loud Rita thought her head would explode. Jessi was laughing, and quickly persuaded one of the boys to buy them drinks.

Over the next few hours the drinks flowed, and the girls relaxed. There was dancing and flirting, and all was good.   The girls got mighty tipsy, and the boys did too. Jessi particularly liked one of them, and was soon in a corner getting to know him better. Rita was left talking to the others, and feeling like a bit of a lemon. The alcohol coursing through her system was starting to make her feel queasy and when the boy she’d been talking to leaned forward and tried to kiss her she panicked.

Next thing she knew she was out on the street. She stumbled along, looking around in a bit of a daze. Then suddenly a willowy figure appeared next to her.

“Rita, you would look fabulous in our new autumn catalogue! With your credit rating we would happily give you a store card which would give you an extra 10% off all purchases.”

Another figure appeared and started to talk over the first.

“Miss Johnson, our winter clothing range will give you all the protection you need from the elements.”

Then more figures appeared, all talking, all trying to sell her something. She walked away, but everywhere she looked new figures appeared. They were projected from the posters on the walls, from the shop windows, from passing buses.

“Rita Johnson, you haven’t visited our shop for twenty three days, but we’d love to see you again. To encourage you back we’d like to offer you a 5%…”

“Ms Johnson, have you considered starting a pension? While you are very young, it is best to start early. The projections if you start with a small amount, as little as £5 a month…”

It went on and on, she started to run and then slipped and fell over. The ghosts continued to plague her.

“Rita we have the new album by GreenFish. You rated their last album 4 stars, would you like to buy this one?”

“Ms Johnson. Ms Johnson, are you ok?”

She realised that the last of the figures was real. It was a policeman. She didn’t know what to say. Getting up she managed a slightly shaky, “Ah, yes I’m fine.”

He looked at her for thirty seconds.

“I’ve just informed your parents that you are in central Newcastle. They seemed surprised. As you are under eighteen I’m afraid I’ve also had to tell them that you are intoxicated. They have asked me to stay with you while they drive here.”

“Oh no. Oh god no.”

“In addition I’ve been asked where Ms Jessi Phillips is. Her parents, notified by yours I believe, are also on their way.”

Rita was mortified. Jessi would never forgive her. How could she have left without her burqcoat? She started to sob.

The policeman looked at her in sympathy.

“You’re not the first lass to forget her covering and get confused by these damn adghosts. I’m guessing you’ll never make the mistake again.”

She shook her head miserably.

He looked wistful, “It’s getting harder to hide though. I hear they’ve nearly got the gait recognition software bug free. Once that happens. Well, God help us all, nowhere will be safe. Anyway, let’s head back to Ritzys and we’ll pick up your coat. That’ll stop this lot at least.” He pointed at the gaggle of ghosts, and Rita nodded, looking forward again to the anonymity of her burqcoat.

 

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Benefit Cheque

Benefit Cheque

Tim arrived home, a bounce in his step. Today was the day he’d get his cheque, and from the way work had been this month, it should be a big one. He might be able to take Janine out for a nice meal. He could picture it: they’d sit on an open balcony, looking out among the city blocks.

He arrived at their door, only he had to double check a few times. Last month, or was it the month before, he’d arrived home in such a good mood he’d tried to enter the wrong flat, and his neighbours had not been impressed. They’d nearly called the building controller, a man who didn’t seem to find Tim’s jokes amusing. He’d managed to talk his way out of it and he’d carried on down the long hall to his own door, followed by suspicious frowns.

This was his door. He’d made a scratch on the bottom so he’d know. Strictly non-regulation of course, but he didn’t see how anyone could mind. He’d asked why they weren’t allowed plaques, or indeed any other identifier and he’d been told something about knowing his place. Janine had tried to explain that it was something to do with security and why couldn’t he just learn to count the doors like everyone else. She was so lovely, always looking after him.

Opening the door he started to whistle, and his tuneless notes were joined by another. ‘Bother’ he thought, too loud again, and he blew a little less effusively, quietening down and stopping the noise alarm. The problem with block living was that not everyone was as happy as he, and sometimes others weren’t cheered by his tunes.

He pottered about, preparing the food. This wasn’t entirely difficult, he just ripped open the plastic cartons of the meal they’d been assigned and placed them in the machine. He didn’t know what the machine actually did, but it would heat their meal, if it was supposed to be hot that is. He didn’t switch it on, he’d wait for Janine to get home.

The door opened and he heard Janine walk into the room. Did he detect a little heaviness? He’d need to lighten her mood.

“Hello my darling love.”

“Hi Tim.”

Definitely not very happy. He wondered why she chose her job, it always seemed to make her so miserable. He’d asked her about it, but she never wanted to discuss it, just telling him that it was an unpleasant place. When he’d tried to tell her to change to something else, she just reminded him of the commandment: Each will be asked to perform their most efficient role. He’d just shaken his head, and thought how lucky he was that he enjoyed his work.

“Tough day?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe, still we made some real progress.” She managed a smile. He loved her smile.

“Well that’s good. Would you like food? Then we can wait for the cheque together.”

Her face slipped a little, but she caught herself.

“I’d quite forgotten it was Benefit day, and yes I’m starved.”

“I have it ready; I’ll just kick it off.”

He stepped into the tiny kitchen area and pressed the button; the numerals spun and then showed the number 15.

“Just fifteen minutes to dinner.   I was worried it would be one of those ninety minute meals they sometimes sneak in, and I wouldn’t want you to be hungry for that long.”

She frowned at him, and her eyes flicked to the Monitor on the wall. He thought she must be thinking the cheque would be coming soon, but it would be at least an hour.

The food was ready, announced by a low bong sound. He opened up the box, and spooned out the food. It was in varying shades of green tonight.

“Green is my favourite colour. Have I mentioned that Janine?”

“Many times Tim.”

“I’m just so glad to see an all green meal, and such different shades. This one is particularly bright, neon perhaps.”

She sighed and nodded. He spooned the lurid food into his mouth and chewed away contentedly. He regaled her with tales of his day. Of staplers fixed, of reports delivered and all the various minutiae he was responsible for. She, as always, nodded and laughed in the right places, but her gaze kept returning to the Monitor. She must be worrying that they wouldn’t be getting a full month’s benefits. He tried to lay her fears to rest.

“Now Janine, don’t worry about the cheque. I worked extra hard last month, so it should make up for all these stories I’ve heard.”

She perked up.

“What stories Tim?”

“Oh people at work. Apparently there’s been a problem with the manufacturies, some people were unhappy, and that means, well it could mean that all our cheques are cut this month. Someone also said they were going to increase the administrative fines.”

“Which people?”

There was something in her voice. He looked a bit startled, and then thought that it was nice for her to take an interest.

“Um, well, let me see. It might have been that accountant guy. Oh no, it can’t be, he’s been off on a retraining week, lucky blighter. In all honesty Janine, I can’t remember. There are always people chatting about all sorts at work.”

“I’m sure. You need to be careful Tim, you don’t want to listen to gossip. The manufacturies are working at full tilt, and the majority are happy.”

He repeated the refrain, “The majority are happy.”

There was a buzz, and the Monitor started to print out their cheques. Tim skipped over and tore them off, handing Janine’s hers without looking at it. Janine considered it very impolite to read a benefit statement, even if it was your wife’s, and Tim quite agreed.

He started reading through his, and didn’t notice the look of horror on Janine’s face. He, as he always did, read his out. He felt it was good to share, though Janine had never reciprocated.

“Oh look at this, they’re fining me half a day’s rations because of that silly incident with the hole punch. I thought I’d explained that. Still mustn’t grumble, I’m sure my extra hours will have made it up.”

Nothing from Janine.

“And look here, another fine, for taking the wrong bus. Well I just wanted to see the other route, I didn’t realise it meant someone else couldn’t get on. I’m sure we used to let people stand on buses. That poor man, I hope he didn’t get fined as well.”

Still silence. He chattered on. His minor misdemeanours mounted up, as they always did, but he knew it would be alright.

“Ah here it is, work line, I like the words: Your work utility has been assessed and you have been found to have provided society benefit to the full sum of…”

He looked up, but Janine was staring at the sheet in front of her.

“Ah Janine, I’ve been awarded just one day’s rations for my work last month. With all the fines I owe them, it looks like we’re down nearly a month’s worth.”

He could see tears streaming down Janine’s face, he wondered why he hadn’t spotted them.

“Oh love, don’t worry. I’m sure it’s a mistake. I’ll speak to them in the morning.”

She looked up at him then, and the heat of her anger silenced him.

“No Tim, you will not. You stupid man! How many times have I told you? Follow the rules, don’t try anything out of the ordinary. These are harsh times and the government needs all of us to conform, or chaos will reign. But oh no, you have to do things differently, you have to challenge, and question. Always cheerful, a good little citizen, and yet, the State’s worst enemy, because you are absolutely incapable of following the rules. Damn you Tim.”

“Now Janine, I know you’re upset, but there’s no need for that.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Who can that be?”

“Just sit there Tim.”

Janine walked to the door, and opened it just enough to speak to the person outside. He thought he caught her say, “… just a few minutes. Yes, damn him, I’ll take the hit. Bastard.”

He’d never heard Janine swear before. Or be that angry. He’d have to make it up to her.

She walked back, slowly, not looking at him.

“Janine, who was it?”

“No one.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry Janine, I’ll sort it out. I’ll try my best. I know the rules are important, but, well I just forget you see. Or sometimes it’s so sunny out it just seems silly to follow all these petty restrictions, you know…”

He ran out of steam, as he looked at her. The tears had dried now, and her face was set.

“I’m sorry Tim, you won’t have a chance to make up for it. You have been selected for retraining. You need to leave now, there are people outside waiting for you.”

“I have? How wonderful! Are you coming too Janine?”

“No Tim. Just you.”

“What do I need to pack?”

“Nothing, they will provide your uniform.”

“When will I be back?”

She stared at him in what he thought might be disbelief, though he couldn’t understand why. Then she sighed and said, “It should be only a week.”

“Oh, well that’s good. And I’ll see you then?”

“Yes.”

The door slammed open, and a large man walked in and turned to Janine.

“Sorry Major, we have to go now, we have eight more to pick up and we don’t want to miss the train.”

She stepped back and the man grabbed Tim.

“Um, yes, I’ll go now then.”

#

Janine watched Tim walk out, chattering away to his captor, oblivious to the implications. She knew he’d never see her again. She however, would see him, he would be the first item on her retraining list in the morning. She knew she’d have to be extra harsh on him, as they’d be watching her for weakness.

Her benefit cheque was lying on the table. At the top it said, ‘Congratulations, you have been assigned single quarters.’

###

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