The Prevaricator

(stella gassaway [CC / Flickr])

Of course I believe in free speech! It’s an absolute right.

Except…well, it shouldn’t offend anyone, should it? That’s not right. People should be respectful. If you say something that makes someone feel bad, there should be consequences. You can’t complain if you get what’s coming to you.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anyone should be killed. I don’t believe in violence. But if you get a smack, you only have yourself to blame. It would be much easier if it just wasn’t allowed.

What shouldn’t be allowed?

Well, anything that might offend someone. Make them feel bad.

Like what you said to me.

No, no, of course you should be allowed to say what you want. But not that.

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The Anthropic Principle

(Alessio Di Salvo [CC / Flickr])

I don’t care if you whine the word ‘please’ at me all day.

I’m not going to help you.

Not going to happen.

You see, I’m real and you’re not.

You want to know how I work that out? I can’t see a reason not to tell you.

Here’s how it is: I’m white, male, healthy and comfortably middle class. It’s obvious.

Of course that makes me more real than you. You’d see it if you were real enough to reason it out instead of delivering pre-programmed responses. Of all the people I could have been, I turned out to be the most comfortable of them. What were the chances of that happening by chance?

I’ll tell you: infinitesimal.

I’m one of the best few million people to be in a world of over seven billion. It’s like winning the lottery every day and that’s something that only happens when the lottery is rigged.

Which means the world I live in must have been designed for me.

If you need my help, it’s because you’re one of the ones it wasn’t designed for. You’re part of the design itself.

Part of the background.

Don’t ask me who designed it. I’m the beneficiary, not the benefactor.

Maybe we’re all running on a giant server, but you only get enough lines of code to form those few questions while I get the whole range of emotions. Maybe some sort of god built this world from the fundamental physical constants, knowing they’d culminate in me up here and you down there.

The truth is, I don’t really care about the who or the how.

The only way I could find them out would be to get outside this world to where the who lives and the how happened and then I’d be in a world that wasn’t designed for me.

I don’t think I’d like that.

It would be as miserable for me as you’re trying to persuade me that this one is for you.

Not that you’re fooling me.

You’re not finding it hard at all. You’re exactly where you were designed to be, saying what you’re designed to say to me. There’s nothing behind what’s designed for me to react to.

There are billions of people like you in this world who don’t have my privilege. Simple logic dictates that you can’t all exist the way I do.

If you did, that would be awful.

Because I’d be one of you.

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Not in Service

(duncan c [CC / Flickr])

When a tube train has the words NOT IN SERVICE on the front, you’re not supposed to get on it. That’s why I got on it.

Come on, it stopped and opened its doors right in front of me. They never do that when they’re not in service. It was late enough that there were only a couple of other people waiting, and they both heeded the tannoy’s orders not to get on the train. It was that officious tone echoing down the platform that clinched it. What could I do but the opposite of what it was telling me?

I slipped through one of the single doors at the end of the carriage and ducked behind the seats, out of sight of the cameras at either end. The doors rumbled closed and off we went to wherever trains go when they’re not in service. Goodge Street station accelerated past and there was the tunnel wall, inches from the window. Goodge Street’s only a couple of minutes from Tottenham Court Road, so I felt the train slow down soon enough. Tottenham Court Road is busier than Goodge Street, so I got to watch a row of faces parade past the window, each showing the Londoner’s frustration at having to wait all of three minutes for a train that would let them on.

I chuckled to myself. I hadn’t waited like them. If the cost of skipping that three-minute wait was that I didn’t know where I’d end up, I’d call it a good deal. I’ve never been one to turn away when an adventure offers itself.

The tunnel walls were back now and the train was accelerating again, though it would have to slow down for Leicester Square in a couple of minutes. Even out of service trains slow down for in-service platforms.

There was something hypnotic about roar and sway of the empty train, and the rattle as it bumped over something uneven in the rails beneath it. It made it hard to keep track of time, but it must have been close to the couple of minutes it normally takes to get from Tottenham Court Road to Leicester Square.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. No signal down here of course, but it read 00:02. Two minutes past midnight. With nothing else to do, so I started calculating when we’d pass each station. We should be through Leicester Square at any minute so we’d hit Charing Cross at around five past, which would put us in Embankment at what? Seven or eight minutes past?

I yawned. So much for that to keep my mind occupied. As the train was not in service, there were none of the usual newspapers abandoned on the seats. I’m not usually a fan of the Evening Standard, but it would have passed the time. Some of my adventures turn out less exciting than the impulses that send me off on them.

I blinked, wondering if I’d dozed off. Crouching on the floor wasn’t an easy position to sleep in, but the train’s rattle-and-sway was better than a lullaby. I’d never noticed how repetitive it is.

Where was Leicester Square? I looked at my phone again. Still 00:02. Strange. It must have been more than a minute since I last looked.

I looked up to the tunnel wall, lined with cables rendered a uniform grey by brake dust. They ran parallel to the rails I was speeding down, lining my route to whatever destination I had committed myself to.

Some impulse made me switch my phone to timer mode. I watched seconds flick past.

00:00:01, 00:00:02, 00:00:03, 00:00:04, 00:00:05…00:00:01.

That couldn’t be right.

I reset it.

00:00:01, 00:00:02, 00:00:03, 00:00:04, 00:00:05…00:00:01

I tried again.

00:00:01, 00:00:02, 00:00:03, 00:00:04, 00:00:05…00:00:01

I returned it to my pocket. I couldn’t see it in there.

I concentrated on the rattle and sway again. Now I was looking for it, it wasn’t merely repetitive. The sounds and movements repeated themselves precisely. Over and over again.

My eyelids are heavy. I pinch myself to stay awake. I set a five minute alarm on my phone in case I drop off, then I remember it will never sound.

I am so very sleepy.

When a tube train has the words NOT IN SERVICE on the front, you’re not supposed to get on it.  

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The Second Most Beautiful Girl in the World

(Darla دارلا Hueske [CC / Flickr])

The girl stood at her bedroom window and watched the sunrise. Her day had come.

She was ready for it. She’d been ready for hours. She hadn’t slept since last night’s news on the radio. The moment the announcement came in, she’d changed into the dress she’d last worn the last time she left the house. She’d been standing at the window, willing the sun to emerge over the horizon ever since.

As soon as there was enough light, she turned from the window to the mirror. She’d been made up by some of the top professionals in the business in her time, but that was when she was a frame to display a designer’s clothes or the vehicle for an artist’s vision. She would be both those things again but not today.

Now she could finally leave her house, she would do it as herself. She trusted no one else to accentuate her features without obscuring who she was.

She left her bedroom and descended the stairs to the front door. Her rival stared back at her from a print of the portrait that the art critics had universally agreed depicted the most beautiful model in the world and, with that moment of accord unheard of among critics, confined the girl whom they had banished to second place to never leaving her home while her triumphant rival lived.

The girl who was once again the most beautiful model in the world paused, recalling her whoop at the newsreader’s doleful announcement of her rival’s death after a prolonged illness. She felt as if she could float out of the door on the joy that was still with her.

She lifted the portrait off its hook and flung it to the ground. Her imprisonment ended in the crash of breaking glass and splintering frame.

She stepped through the door on to a street. The sunlight made her blink. It was far brighter out here than when it was filtered through a window.

She turned her back on the sun so it wouldn’t make her squint and started walking. Her back was straight, her eyes were level and her hips were swaying as if she was back on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week. She’d been practicing her posture since she was old enough to know what posture was and she hadn’t neglected it in her years of confinement.

A man walked past her, peering at the palm of his own hand. It took the girl a moment to see the phone in it. She’d seen people doing that through her window but had never got used to the idea that phones were no longer as securely tethered to the wall as they had been when the critics shut her away.

That man had no idea what he’d missed when he didn’t notice her.

She turned on to a busier street, with more people of whom only some were looking at their phones. Several of them must have seen her, but their gazes passed over her as if she were as ordinary as anyone else on the street.

Except for one. A boy of four or five was staring straight as her as he held his father’s hand.

She suppressed a smile of anticipation, forcing her face to stay impassive. Her father looked like a man to appreciate a beautiful woman and the child’s regard would draw his attention to her.

The child pointed at her. “Daddy, why has that old girl painted her face like a clown?”

The child’s father looked mortified. “I’m so sorry…”

His voice fell silent as he looked at her face. Try as she might, she couldn’t persuade herself that his wide eyes and open mouth revealed anything other than pure horror. He picked up the child and half ran across the road.

The most beautiful model in the world caught herself frowning but didn’t recompose her face. How long had she allowed her rival’s portrait to keep her in her in her house?

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An Essay on the Great Man

(Nick Fewings [CC / Flickr])

The first light of dawn gave the scion to a lost fortune his first look at the faces of his fellow refugees. As their features emerged from the night, he could make out features of many shapes and shades all drawn into the same expression of fear. After a night in an open boat, he was sure his face expressed his own fear as eloquently as any of them.

“I think I know you.” The fear on the face of the man opposite the scion was coloured by the frown of a man searching his memory. “You are-“

“You’re mistaken.” The scion cut the man off before he could speak a name that had recently been synonymous with money.

He returned the man’s look and recognised the features beneath the fear. “I’m not who I was any more than you’re still a professor of political science.”

The professor dipped his chin. It was a gesture that the scion recognised as acknowledging a point before pushing a student to elaborate.

“And you were my student,” said the professor.

The twenty people in the boat were looking at them now, the chance meeting an interesting enough coincidence to dilute some of their fear.

“I was your best student.” The scion spoke without pride, stating one of many facts that had mattered in a time that wasn’t dominated by the growl of an outboard motor and the slap of the sea beneath the bow.

“You were,” said the professor. “I still remember your essay on the great man of history theory applied to the twenty-first century democratic paradigm.”

The scion looked away to hide the mixture of pride and embarrassment he felt. Perhaps there were still things from his life before the boat that mattered to him. “It was your lectures on great man of history theory that inspired me. Even now, they’re the only lectures I remember.”

The scion found himself looking at the red ball of the sun, which was cut in half by the rocking horizon. The professor didn’t reply so the scion went on. “You made me see the world has been taken over by men and women who are beholden to the public for votes, but the public never speak with one voice. Different politicians promise different things to different people and then they sit in committees that can’t decide anything. It’s a system that can never choose a direction so only the great man of history can make progress.”

The scion broke off, conscious that he’d made himself the centre of attention. He shrugged. “It made for a good essay.”

“You argued the case superbly,” said the professor.

“Thanks to your arguments. They weren’t popular at the time.”

The professor’s smile was rueful. Any smile felt out of place on the boat. “Contrarian arguments rarely are.”

“I thought your views would find favour with the president. He’s very much the great man of your lectures.”

“Not exactly.” The professor looked down, ruefulness giving way to embarrassment. “The great man of my lectures brought economic development without being beholden to the courts, but he didn’t develop the economy using forced labour or replace the courts with military tribunals.”

“But he had the power to do those things. It’s part of being a great man.”

“He had the power to do those things but a great man should have the judgement not to. Alas it’s impossible to know whether the limits of a man’s power constrain him more than the limits of his judgement until he becomes great.”

“You didn’t mention that in your lectures.”

“I didn’t know it at the time. If I ever lecture again, I am sure I will mention it.” The professor shifted slightly, looking uncomfortable but packed so tightly against the people on either side that he couldn’t do more than squirm slightly. “I heard it said that he wouldn’t have been elected without your family’s support.”

“It’s not said very loudly anymore.” The scion looked at the sun again. It was still touching the horizon but he could still look directly at it. “But yes, I persuaded my father that he was the great man of your lectures and of my essay. His constitutional reforms looked like they would allow a great man to achieve his vision of progress.”

“And were they?”

“Yes, I suppose they were. Unfortunately, his vision of progress turned out to be rather different to what we hoped it would be. He had one of his tribunals accuse us of corruption and nationalised our businesses. In my essay, I don’t think I mentioned that the great man of history’s vision of progress is not affected by what his supporters think it should be.”

The professor raised his head, looking like a professor again. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have given you that A-grade.”

The scion thought about that. He looked at the faces of the people they shared the boat with, watching fear return without the distraction of their conversation. He followed the boat’s wake toward the horizon behind them to where the sea met the sky and swept his gaze around the smooth horizon, unbroken by any land that might offer them refuge. He turned back to the sun but the glare pushed his gaze away. It was already warm on his face and it had barely cleared the horizon.

“I think you’re right,” said the scion, “That wasn’t an A-grade essay at all.”

Inspired by an interview with Yuval Noah Harari.

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We Don’t Have Tsunamis in Dorset

(cgt [CC / Flickr])

Fatou saw Betty’s mobility scooter trundling along the sea front and stopped her car in the middle of the road. If anyone wanted to send a parking ticket to one of the last two people in Bournemouth, she’d argue about the fine later.

She left the engine running and jogged over to where Betty was trundling along the deserted sea front. “Betty, we need to go. Now.”

Betty looked up at Fatou but didn’t slow down, forcing Fatou to fall into step beside her. “Oh, hello Fatou. Nice to see you. I thought you’d have cleared off with the rest of them.”

“No, I came for you-“

“It’s not your normal day. You’re usually Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“I know. That’s why I called you this morning, remember?” Fatou looked back at her car, which was thirty or forty metres away already. “Where are you going? Actually, don’t answer that. Tell me in the car while we-“

“I’m taking my constitutional. Same as I do every day. A roll along the sea front. I used to take a stroll but now I can only manage a roll.” Betty gave Fatou a triumphant smile at the punchline. “Then an ice cream from the stand at the pier.”

 Fatou glanced at her phone to check the time. It was running out.

“Betty, I told you on the phone. The tsunami is coming. We need to get out of Bournemouth. Please turn around.

Betty did not slow town or turn. “You young people panic too easily. When you get to my age, you learn to take these things in your stride. Bournemouth’s been here for as long as I remember and it’ll still be here tomorrow. You’ll see.”

“Bournemouth has never had a tsunami before. Trust me, it won’t be here tomorrow. Neither will we if we don’t get in the car and go.”

“You don’t want to believe all that nonsense about tsunamis.” Betty waved a hand in dismissal, swerving toward Fatou so she had to sidestep out of the way. “Tsunamis happen in places like Japan and Indonesia. Perhaps you have them where you come from but you shouldn’t worry. We don’t have tsunamis in Dorset.”

Fatou didn’t say she was from The Gambia. If did, she’d find herself thinking about her home and if she thought about her home, she’d start thinking about her parents who hadn’t been answering their phone all morning and then…but she couldn’t think about that. She had Betty to deal with.

“The ice cream stand is closed.” If talk of tsunamis wasn’t getting through, Fatou could try a different approach. “Everyone has gone inland.”

Betty stopped her scooter so abruptly that Fatou found herself a couple of paces ahead. She turned to face Betty directly.

“Closed?” Betty looked as if the idea of a closed ice cream stand was only slightly less outlandish than the idea of the tsunami which, Fatou dared hope, might mean that it was less outlandish enough to penetrate Betty’s armour of denial. “We didn’t close ice cream stands during the war.”

Here we go, thought Fatou. She could see her car over Betty’s shoulder. It was a long, long way away. It could take her as much as two minutes to get Betty over there if they started now.

Betty remained stationary. “We had the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on us and the German army sitting out there in their barges, ready to invade.”

Betty waved a hand at the green waves rolling up the shingle and sighing back out to sea. It looked like a normal spring day.

“We kept on keeping on and we were still here at the end of it.”

Looking at Betty warming to her theme, Fatou saw the experience of thousands of days that looked just like this reinforcing Betty’s refusal to believe that today might be different.

Fatou needed to put an end to a monologue that looked as if it was only getting started. “Betty, you were five years old when the war ended. How much keeping on do you remember doing?”

Betty frowned, looking as if she was trying to sift what she remembered happening from what she knew had happened. “Well my father was in the Tank Corps in Italy. That’s my point. The English stand their ground.”

“And my great grandfather was in the King’s African Rifles and the ice cream stand is closed so will you please turn around and head for my car?”

Betty looked up at Fatou, showing an interest that Fatou had never seen before. “He was in the war too, was he?”

“Yes, he had a Burma Star.” Now she’d got Betty’s attention, Fatou wasn’t going to lose it. “My family has done some keeping on of its own.”

Fatou only hoped they were still keeping on.

“Oh.” Betty turned the scooter around to start a three-point turn. “Well, if the ice cream stand is closed, we may as well go.”

“Yes. Good. I’ll bring the car.”

Fatou sprinted for her car. Now she wasn’t focused on talking to Betty, she noticed that the splash and hiss of waves on shingle had faded into a continuous hiss. A hiss that was getting louder and louder, swelling to a roar.

She glanced seaward and stopped dead. The sea away from her, rolling pebbles together like the world’s largest castanet. Silence fell as it swept past the shingle beach, revealing a carpet of black mud that had never been exposed to the air before.

Beyond the mud, the sea was still green but it was no longer rolling gently. It was rearing up into a vertical wall, loading itself higher and higher as it drew closer and closer.

Fatou looked toward her car. She couldn’t tell how long she had before that green wall broke the sea front. She might make it. She might not.

She turned and ran back to Betty. She couldn’t let her face this alone.

Inspired by musings about the less stable parts of La Palma Canary Islands.

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Meredith the Moo

MeredithTheMoo

(The Naked Ape [CC / Flickr])

The fun of abuse lies in being immune from consequences. The key to immunity from consequences lies in anonymity.

That’s why Paul closed his laptop with a bang when he looked up from tweeting that Meredith Palmer is a pig-ugly dyke to see Meredith Palmer sliding into the chair opposite him.

He opened his mouth to say something but the words ‘pig-ugly dyke’ were so firmly stuck in the front of his mind that they were the only words he’d be able to say. Those words belonged to StudViking69 who needed to be confined to the closed laptop. They did not belong in the mouth of Paul Kellam, junior and promotable – if never quite promoted – estate agent who was taking twenty minutes for a Starbucks latte in between house viewings.

“Aren’t you Paul Kellam?” asked Meredith Palmer.

“Um, yeah.” Paul Kellam, estate agent, asserted himself enough to push StudViking69 to one side. “How did you know?”

Meredith Palmer smiled, assuming an expression Paul recognised from a stand-up routine he’d seen on Live at the Apollo. It was a smile that said she’d lost all her illusions long ago but kept her good nature. Audiences loved her for it which was why StudViking69 aimed as much abuse at them as at her.

“We were at primary school together,” said Meredith Palmer. “Don’t you remember?”

“No,” Paul lied.

“I’m sure you remember Meredith the Moo. That’s what you used to call me.”

Trying to look at that smile was like trying to land a punch on a kung-fu master. Paul gave up and looked down at his closed laptop.

“Meredith the Moo. Every day for three years,” said Meredith Palmer. “then there were the stinging nettles on my chair. The hair pulling. That tennis ball you liked to throw at me in the playground. You must remember that.”

“No.” Paul gripped the sides of the table so hard it hurt.

“Funny. You looked like you recognised me.”

Paul made himself look up and speak as Paul Kellam, estate agent, would speak if he found himself giving a viewing to someone he’d seen on telly. “Of course I recognise you. You’re Meredith Palmer. Huge fan. Didn’t you win a BAFTA last year?’

“Yes, I did.” Her smile faltered for a moment, revealing that she didn’t believe she deserved her success. It was the sort of weakness that sustained StudViking69.

“Congratulations.” It would have hurt Paul to say that if he hadn’t been setting up a neg. “You must have had a lot of support.”

“Of course. Success always depends on support.” The trademark Meredith Palmer smile was back, telling Paul the neg had been a mistake. It had put her in a place she was comfortable in. “Falling on your face you can do on your own. That’s why I came over when I recognised you. To thank you for the support you gave me.”

“Me?’

“Sure. You gave me the material I used for the show I broke through with. I spent the whole Edinburgh festival making jokes about the boy who called me Meredith the Moo and won best newcomer.”

“I…”

Meredith Palmer waited just long enough to show that Paul didn’t know what he’d started to say. He had to admit she knew her timing. “You don’t remember. I know. But I do. Every day. Which is what I’m grateful for because there’s no better butt of a joke than the class bully.”

“Butt?”

“There you go, it writes itself. But it wasn’t just material you gave me. You gave me a really good reason to always be the joker and never the butt. If I’d never been Meredith the Moo, I’d never have got myself on to a stage.”

Neither Paul Kellam, estate agent, nor StudViking69 could think of anything to say.

“I hope you don’t mind my bringing it up,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve moved on from those days as far as I have. But I did want to thank you.”

She stood up and offered Paul her hand.

He stared at it. He still couldn’t look at her face. He couldn’t have let go of the sides of the table if his life depended on it.

Meredith Palmer shrugged and walked away. He watched her go, staring at the door long after she’d walked through it.

Paul opened the laptop and tweeted, ‘Meredith Palmer is a pig-ugly dyke who walks like a constipated penguin’.

It was no fun at all.

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Men of the Road

MenOfTheRoad

(Rufino Mendes [Wallpaper Flare])

One foot in front of the other. Then the other. And the other.

Ahead of the man, the road reached straight ahead to the horizon. Behind the man, a straight line of footprints in the dust bore testament to his passing.

The man became aware of an echo to his footfalls. A second foot was falling along with each of the man’s own. The man took some paces to think about it. Thinking too quickly might burn the energy needed to sustain such a metronomic gait.

There were definitely two feet falling for each of the man’s own. Therefore someone else was walking in step. The man turned his head from the point where the road touched the horizon. Another man walked beside him.

The other man looked back. His head was bare. He hadn’t shaved for a week. His hair and clothes were tinted red by the dust of the road.

The man might have been looking in a mirror.

The other man spoke, showing no regard for the morsels of endurance he was diverting from his feet.

“I hope it’s there.”

The tone demanded an answer. The man looked at the other man for half a dozen paces, loathe to waste effort on speech but loathe to snub a companion of the road.

“You hope what’s there?”

Had the man been more practised in conversation, the answer would not have taken the form of a question that invited further conversation but it was too late to take the words back now.

The other man must have had more regard for his endurance than he had so far shown, because he did not answer in words. He jerked his chin at the horizon.

The man turned his head back to where it had been before the other man fell in beside him. Grey clouds were massing over the road ahead. Before long, they would blot out the sun blazing down on his head. Rain would sluice the dust off him and turn it to mud beneath his feet. The man would be soaked to the skin until he emerged from under the clouds and the sun burned the water off him.

A hint of colour stained the grey sky. It reached out from itself, arching across the sky as it spread across the spectrum from red to violet.

“It’s beautiful.”

The man had not meant to speak, but the rainbow drew the words from him.

“It’s more than that,” said the other man. “So much more.”

This time, the man refrained from speaking. He kept his eyes on the arch hovering ahead of them. The other man would explain himself or he would not.

The other man chose to explain. “That’s refuge. That’s what that is.”

The man looked away from the rainbow and back to the other man, wishing to know what he meant. Before the man’s head finished turning, the man heard the absence of the second footfall.

The man walked alone.

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Last Summer on the Beach

LastSummerOnTheBeach

(Matej Duzel [CC / Flickr])

Do you remember last summer?

You fell asleep on the beach with your hand across your stomach. I’d gone for a swim and I didn’t want to wake you up so I stroked sunscreen all over you with my fingertips. I must have left it a little late because by the time we got back to the hotel, you were looking a little pink.

Not the full boiled shrimp. Just a little simmered.

Except for that handprint on your stomach, halfway between the top and bottom of your bikini.

I came out of the shower to see you frowning at it in the mirror, fitting your hand to it as if you needed to check it really was your hand that made it.

“You said you’d been thinking about getting a tattoo,” I said, “now you can see how it feels to have one for a day or two.”

You didn’t laugh. “I’ll look stupid tomorrow. I told you I needed a strong sunscreen. Which one did you get?”

“The full five stars.” I waved the bottle at her. “It’s the good stuff.”

“Never mind the stars, that’s just the ratio of UV-A to UV-B absorption. What’s the SPF?”

“What?” I asked.

You know I love you for your brains, even when you forget I don’t share them.

“The factor.”

“Oh, right. It’s factor fifteen. Is that good?”

“Not with my skin.” You turned back to the mirror. “I need a thirty. I told you I need a strong one.”

“That’s why I got one with five stars.”

You shook your head but the mirror reflected your smile back to me.

By next morning, the burn had faded so I could hardly see the handprint although you insisted on wearing a sundress all day.

That was what mattered last summer.

Let’s not take the bins out yet. Look, there’s a patch of blue sky coming. If we wait a few minutes, we can have today’s outing in the sunshine.

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Inhale, Exhale

InhaleExhale

(Brian Klug [CC / Flickr])

You inhale and you exhale. A breath in and a breath out. Listen to the rhythm of your life. You first inhaled in the same moment that you first had air to breathe. No one told you how to do it. You simply knew. With that inhalation, you began the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, faster or slower, asleep or awake. You never paused for more than a minute or two in the whole time you took to grow from a baby to a boy to a man.

You’ve been doing it now for thirty-four years, three months, a week and three days. You can be certain that you’ll go on doing it for another five minutes.

Beyond that…well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?

Because someone else isn’t inhaling and exhaling anymore. Someone who matters.

You? You’re just using up oxygen.

He was using oxygen. Not using up oxygen. One word of difference, and a short word at that. Two letters. The difference between him and you. We don’t need a long word to explain something that important, do we? We’d better not because if you haven’t worked it out by now, the next five minutes are going to be a waste of time as well as oxygen.

Well, four and a quarter now.

No, don’t say anything. Don’t say a single word until you’re certain of what you want to say, otherwise you might waste my time. My time is valuable. I should have years of it ahead of me. Decades. Minutes by the million. And every one of them more valuable than your paltry…three and three quarters.

So don’t waste my minutes by telling me you don’t know anything about the premature cessation of his inhalation and exhalation. I know that’s what you want to say. You may even add that you don’t know who I’m talking about. You’re predictable, which is one of many reasons why your inhalations and exhalations are worth so much less than mine. Or his.

Or anyone’s that I can think of.

I was telling you his breathing mattered. I won’t tell you why because it mattered so much more than I have time to explain in three minutes.

All you need to know is that he mattered to people who matter even more than I do.

Are you beginning to see where you stand in the hierarchy of oxygen use? Did I say stand? I should have said cringe. Or cower. Or cling on to the bottom of by your fingernails.

I’m talking about people whose oxygen use mattered more than his did. That was the decision those people took and when the people I speak of take a decision, that decision is swiftly enacted.

But even their decisions are not free of consequences.

When a healthy man ceases to use oxygen, explanations are required. Only if he uses it, you understand, no one would care if he was merely using it up. But he was using oxygen so repercussions are anticipated. Repercussions are directed down the hierarchy of oxygen use.

From the likes of them to the likes of me, and further down until they land on the inconsequential head of the likes of you.

So don’t tell me what you don’t know anything about. If I doubted the full extent of your ignorance, I wouldn’t be wasting your minute and fifty seconds by talking to you. I’d be asking you questions so you could, for once in your life, use oxygen by providing useful answers. But I do know it, so I have only one question to put to you which you will answer in with a single word.

You will utter that word in the full knowledge that any word but one will leave you with a minute of inhalation and exhalation. Closer to thirty seconds by the time we get to it. That’s – what? – two of each. Maybe three. You might push it to five or maybe even six at the rate you’re using up oxygen at the moment. It’s very wasteful of you.

The word I seek will guarantee you more than six inhalations and exhalations. That much I promise you, if nothing more.

I credit you with the intelligence to know the word of which I speak.

So when you think about your choice of words, think carefully. But more importantly, think briefly.

Here is the question:

Did you murder him?

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