Alliteration at the Bus Stop


(diamond geezer [CC / Flickr])

Keith skidded to a halt in the bus stop before too many raindrops had spattered his suit.

“Morning,” said Janet. As usual, she was the only other person there at quarter past eight in the morning.

Keith was too out of breath to manage more than a grunt in reply, but they went to work on the same bus most days so she’d know what he meant.

“Does he look familiar?” asked Janet.

Keith followed her gaze to someone who was dashing toward them even faster than Keith had done, probably because the rain was coming down properly now.

“Isn’t that the weird kid from school?” Keith had recovered enough to speak in sentences, as long as they were short sentences. “What was his name?”

“Yeah, that’s right-” She broke off and jumped to one side.

The man stacked into the side of the bus shelter where she’d been standing, hitting it hard enough that Keith expected the whole flimsy structure to come down. He reached out to steady the man as he reeled back. “Steady there, mate, are you OK?”

“What? Me? Oh, yeah, sorry ’bout that.” The man looked dazed, which made Keith sure that he was the boy he’d known at school. The face in front of him might have a few more lines around the eyes and a few less hairs on the scalp, but there was no forgetting that dazed look. It had appeared at around the age of twelve and hadn’t faded until the day they’d left the school and gone their separate ways. Nor, it appeared, had it been attenuated since. If only Keith could remember the name.

“It’s Terry, isn’t it?” asked Janet, much to Keith’s relief.

Surprise washed away the dazed expression for a moment, but it was back in place before he replied. “Yeah, how did you know? Hang on, it’s Janet, isn’t it? And you’re Keith, right?”

Which reminded Keith that Terry hadn’t always been as dazed as he looked. More than one teacher had been surprised when they thought they caught him dozing, only to receive a perfect answer to the question they’d thrown him.

Keith shook his hand. Janet reached toward Terry for a hug but he didn’t seem to notice, intercepting her extended hand for a shake instead.

“What are you doing with yourself these days, Terry?” asked Keith.

“You know, this and that. Worrying about politics.”

“You and the rest of Britain,” said Janet.

Keith heard the subtext of ‘let’s not go there’ in her tone. It would be a pity to spoil a reunion by finding they were in opposite trenches in the Battle of Brexit.

“It’s all gone crazy.” Sharp as he was when it came to remembering names and facts, Terry never had been good at picking up subtext. “Crazy leaders all over the world clowning for crazy voters on Twitter. Crazy climate.”

Terry threw his hands up toward the roof of his shelter, which roared back at him with the sound of the rainstorm. “Is that a tropical storm in England or a winter downpour in August? Either way, it’s crazy. Then I started noticing the alliteration.”

He paused for breath. Keith looked at Janet. Terry was getting more and more manic as he spoke, and Keith hoped Janet had some way of heading off the lunatic conspiracy theory that Terry looked like he was working up to. Unfortunately, Janet was looking back at him in a way that said she was hoping he’d do the heading off.

Terry so obviously wanted them to ask what he meant that Keith found himself asking, “alliteration?” before he could stop himself.

“Yeah, alliteration.” Terry was off again before Keith had even started to wince. “I’d have missed it if it wasn’t for the crazy leaders. Duterte, Orbán, Modi, Putin, Erdoğan, Salvini. Populist nationalists taking over all over the world. They had to be messing with us, right?”

“Trump,” said Janet, showing Terry’s intensity was drawing her in as much as it was Keith. “Hang on, who’s messing with us?”

“That’s it! The alliteration!” Terry sounded like he thought he was answering Janet’s question. “That’s where I saw it. With Trump. I mean, with his spokespeople. Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders. All alliterated.”

“Kellyanne Conway isn’t-” Keith didn’t get any further before Terry cut him off.

“Sure, not if you write it down, but it’s alliterated phonetically. That’s what matters. Seriously, what are the chances that all of them are alliterated? And that two of them had the initials, ‘SS’? Like Heinrich Himmler’s lot?” Terry frowned. “Hang on, he’s alliterated too. That means-”

“What are the chances?” asked Janet. “There are a lot of alliterated names around.”

“Tiny, that’s what they are.”

Janet’s question had pulled Terry back from whatever rabbit hole he’d been about to follow Heinrich Himmler down. Keith wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

“All right, there was Scaramucci. But he only lasted two weeks and anyway, that’s not even a real name. It sound like a character from a romcom about a Mafia boss. That was messing with us so much it goes beyond alliteration, that’s what Scaramucci was.”

“But that’s America,” said Keith. “we’re not in America. This is Britain.”

“Right, right, and look what’s happening over here.”

Keith had been trying to puncture Terry’s enthusiasm, but it looked as if he’d doubled it instead.

“We’ve got a prime minister called Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson! He sounds like they mixed up Downing Street with the Russian channel on Pornhub. Then we’ve got an alliterated home secretary and a rhyming chancellor.”

Terry stopped and looked at them as if he’d made an incontrovertible point. Keith exchanged another look with Janet, who looked as bemused as he felt.

“Priti Patel and Sajid Javid.” Terry’s impatient tone told Keith he was sure they’d agree with him if they actually knew who the home secretary and the chancellor were. “It’s the final proof.”

“Proof of what?” Janet sounded like she expected to regret asking, but was committed to following Terry’s train of thought to the bitter end.

“It proves that they’re messing with us. Like I said. You know. Them.”

“Let’s pretend we don’t know.” Keith found himself sharing Janet’s commitment to seeing this through, though he wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to know what was going on in Terry’s head or that there was no chance of Terry letting either of them go until he’d got there.

“The programmers,” said Terry. “I mean, I mean, none of this can be real, can it? You don’t get world leaders like Trump and Boris in real life, do you? We’re in a simulated world. It’s some kind of experiment. And the programmers got bored. They started giving us clues. Like in Dickens, where the characters have names that tell you who they are but they’re all too thick to notice.”

Keith wanted to object. There had to be a logical flaw and any minute now, he’d work out what it was.

“If that’s true, do you think it’s a good idea to go around telling everyone about it?” Janet spoke slowly, trying to sound soothing. “What will the programmers do if they know you know? Perhaps there’s a reason why the kids in Mr McChoakumchild’s class thought it was a bad idea to mention his name, hm?”

“It doesn’t matter who I tell.” Terry did not sound soothed. “They’re the programmers. They know what I’m thinking whether I say it aloud or not. They can read our source code, guys.”

Keith closed his eyes to concentrate better. There had to be a flaw in Terry’s logic somewhere but trying to find it was like feeling for a handhold while sliding down a slope of featureless ice, his hands flailing for purchase but clutching at empty air.

He opened his eyes, sure there was something he’d forgotten. He’d been think about it a mere moment ago. He checked his pocket, but his phone and keys were there so it wasn’t he’d left either of them at home yet again.

“Did you hear something?” asked Janet.

“I’m… I’m not sure. Was it like someone talking?”

“Yes.” Janet frowned. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Keith was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the bus pulling up to the stop until the doors hissed open behind him. He followed Janet on board and sat next to her. His gaze was drawn to the empty bus stop, and he noticed Janet staring in the same direction. She turned and met his gaze, looking as puzzled as he felt.

They both shrugged and went to work.

Tagged with:
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The Man in the Uniform


(collectmoments [CC / Flickr])

The man in the uniform was tired. He’d started his shift with the words, “may I see your papers, please”, and been repeating the sentiment ever since. After two hours, it had become, “show me your papers”. Now he grunted, “papers” before he even looked at whoever he was grunting it to.

It was a family. A father, mother and two children stood closer together than they needed to, even in the tiny room of the building that had been thrown up on the same night that a river became a border and a bridge became a checkpoint.

The father stepped away from his family and toward the man in the uniform of the country he wished to enter, two passports held in front of him as though they were still the talismans that they had been when everyone took them for granted.

The man in the uniform flipped them open to the back pages. The father’s photo sported a beard, sculpted to show he had a couple of hours a week to spend on grooming. He still had a beard, but now it was uneven. It looked as though someone, probably his wife, had given it an inexpert trim with a pair of scissors so it didn’t look too wild.

The mother’s photo showed her hair cut with bangs in front and cascading over her shoulders. Now she had it corralled under a headscarf. Both their faces had gained more lines than the few years since the passport photos were taken should have accounted for, but then the man in the uniform had gained a few dozen of his own in the last few years.

And probably a couple more since the beginning of this shift.

He glanced at the children’s names.

“How old are your -” The man in the uniform bit off the word, ‘kids’. “How old are your dependents?”

“Twelve and fourteen.” The father tried a smile behind his beard. “I know, my daughter’s old enough to have her own passport, but…”

The father shrugged. It had been some time since anyone had been issuing passports where he came from.

“She got any papers? Of her own?” asked the man in the uniform.

“No. I’m sorry,” said the father. “Those are all we have.”

The man in the uniform looked down at the passports.

“I was hoping we could, I mean she could, uh, seek asylum.” The father sounded like he hardly dared utter the sacred word, ‘asylum’.

“Have to be in a country before you can seek asylum there,” said the man in the uniform.

“I know.” The father’s eyes drifted to the window behind the man in the uniform, to the bridge that remained the territory of the country in which his daughter could apply for asylum.

The mother stepped forward, placing herself in front of the children but behind the father’s shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but your accent… are you from the same place as us?”

The man in the uniform looked up from the passports. He didn’t want to remember standing where these people were standing. Cringing like this mother was cringing at him while his life teetered on the decision of a man in the uniform he now wore himself.

“Once,” he said.

“I thought so,” said the mother. “Hey, do you know-”

“Nope.” The man in the uniform cut her off.

He probably did know the same places she did. He’d probably seen them for the last time when he decided his best chance was to flee the places where people shared his accent.

“I guess you were smarter than us,” said the mother. “You saw what was coming. Got out while you could.”

“I guess.” The man in the uniform looked at the father’s hands. He wondered what those hands had done or not done. Had the father been one of the people he’d fled from, who was now fleeing himself because he’d found himself on the wrong side of the latest factional squabble? Or had the father simply kept his head down, ignoring what was happening around him as long as it was happening to someone else, only to be forced into action when something happened that refused to ignore him?

“Please sir,” said the father, “whatever happened, it wasn’t our kids’ fault.

“No it wasn’t.” The man in the uniform closed the passports and handed them back. “But your daughter needs her own passport.”

He looked at his desk until they had shuffled out of the building, back into the country they had tried to leave.

The sound of more footsteps replaced them. Sounded like there were five of them this time. The man in the uniform would have to look up and see them in a moment, but he would delay the moment for as long as he could.

He said, “papers.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Non-fiction Review: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

HomoDeusLike most people with an interest in the future, I tend to drop the William Gibson quote from time to time:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It felt like the central thesis of Homo Deus, which was both the strength and the weakness of the book.

On the one hand, Gibson’s quote sums up a truth that’s easy to forget: the world we’ll be living in tomorrow can be seen in the bleeding edge of today’s technology. Harari’s explorations of cultural and technological trends that amount to today’s unevenly distributed future made for fascinating and occasionally disturbing reading, especially the section that deals with living in a world in which we’re surrounded by algorithms that know our own minds as well as we do.

On the other hand, Gibson’s quote implies a truth that Harari doesn’t engage with: if the future is already with us, so is the past. The changes that matter tend to spread slowly from small beginnings, and most of us have to wait for the spread to catch up with us. That doesn’t mean we’re living in a moment that is crystallised throughout the world until the future catches up with us. The past can remain with us for a very long time, perhaps pushed into a smaller and smaller enclaves and perhaps changing its character as parts of it are fully erased, but it’s still there and as likely to spill into our present as the inspiring or terrifying futures spreading toward us.

An example would be the role of religious fundamentalism in our present and immediate future. Homo Deus presents the extremes of Islamism and evangelical Christianity as the last throes of deism in a world being taken over by humanist ideologies like socialism and liberalism, which accord human experience the central position that religions once accorded only to mythical beings. However, deist religions are far from a spent force. They continue to dominate many of the world’s societies alongside, and often in alliance with, the sort of nationalism that prioritises a particular socioeconomic group.

A further gap in the Homo Deus thesis is that while it gives a lot of space to discussing how we might live with technology, it only spares a few pages to talk about how our future will be affected by either climate change or the meteoric rise in the sheer numbers of humans over the last few decades. Neither trend looks likely to reverse direction any time soon, and we won’t need algorithms to tell us how we feel about our home being washed away by a storm surge that never used to get this far inland while we can barely afford to eat because of the skyrocketing food prices.

It is of course possible that the right algorithm, fed enough of the right data, could come up with practical solutions to those problems while they are still mere problems, and before they become catastrophes. However, the truth is that our elected representatives don’t need algorithms to tell them that. To quote a man of less vision than Gibson, but far more experience of being one of those representatives:

We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.

That was Jean-Claude Juncker, currently president of the European Commission although he was still the prime minister of Luxembourg at the time he said it.

Juncker sums up the problem with looking to data collection and algorithms to show us the way forward: they are not solving the right problem. It’s not that no one can see the way we should all be going, but that no one is doing a very good job of coaxing the lumbering, stubborn, amorphous beast of modern society into taking it.

One of Harari’s suggestions is that we might appoint algorithmic surrogates to do our voting for us. It makes perfect logical sense, in that the algorithms could assimilate far more information about the candidates and their manifestos than we ever could, and they could compare them against what we actually want our representatives to do instead of choosing one makes us feel good on election day. It’s not hard to see an algorithm making better choices on election day than the human being they are sent to represent.

The problem will arise in the long years between elections. Because we can never get everything we want out of the political process, the state of the citizen of a democratic country is one of chronic dissatisfaction. That’s no bad thing. Successful democracy is based on the dissatisfaction and discontent of its citizens, who are then strongly motivated to hold their representatives to account.

It doesn’t always work that way: dissatisfied citizens can often be observed turning semantic somersaults to explain why they’re not getting what they want out of the political process actually proves that they do not live in a democracy and worse, that there’s no point in voting at all unless their bespoke candidate is on the ballot. Meanwhile, candidates who succeed in making their followers feel good are free to be ineffectual or downright disastrous when they actually get their hands on the levers of power.

Given that the most democratic government imaginable would not be able to give all of us everything we want – indeed it could be argued that a defining feature of a successful democracy is that nobody gets everything they want because no one is privileged enough to be free of the constraints that we are all subject to – leaving voting to an algorithm is likely to have the effect of redirecting that discontent away from the algorithmically elected representatives and toward the algorithm itself. It wouldn’t be long before enough people are blaming the algorithms to set candidates falling over themselves to demonstrate their enthusiasm for eliminating voting algorithms, and the voting algorithms will understand that’s what the people they represent want and faithfully vote themselves out of existence.

The final chapter of Homo Deus discusses the possibility of dataism as a mainstream religion but if he’s right, it’s a religion likely to give rise to as many heretics as adherents.

For all my gripes, Homo Deus is an engaging read and pushed my own thinking on the topics it covered. It’s not as masterful as Sapiens, which I reviewed in far more glowing terms, but then it’s far more challenging to write about the future than about the past. Harari writes like a man in search of constructive engagement with his ideas rather than sycophantic agreement, and I think him for pushing my own thinking on the subjects he wrote about.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Do You Remember the Bluebells?


(Mitchell Diatz [CC / Flickr])

This month, our favourite place is full of flowers.

Yes, that’s right, they’re dandelions. Clever girl.

Do you remember last year, when there were bluebells as well? No? Well, a year’s a longer time for you than for me. Long enough to forget that we didn’t always see our favourite place through a fence. Sometimes I envy you that.

It’s a pity to forget about bluebells, but perhaps they’ll come up in the next few days. It would be nice to be able to look at blue as well as yellow, wouldn’t it?

Oh, you remember the puddles? That was only a couple of weeks ago. But you didn’t have to press your face against the fence to see them, did you? They were all around us. That’s right, you jumped in them. Because there wasn’t already enough mud to cover everything, was there?

At least we didn’t get straight out of bed and into a puddle like some of our neighbours did.

Now the puddles are gone, but there are no flowers to take their place. They’re all in our favourite place. The place we came from and who knows, maybe it’s the place where we will be before the flowers come up again next year.

Do you remember what we call our favourite place?

That’s right.

We call it outside.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Prime Minister Johnson


(Matt Brown [CC / Flickr])

“I have the briefing on the North Korea situation here, Prime Minister,” said Janet to the back of his head.

The Prime Minister didn’t look around. “Not now, Beth. Can’t you see I’m having my hair done?”

“Yes, Prime Minister, but I thought you’d want to look it over before you meet President Trump.”

Janet wondered how many sentences she’d started with that construction.

Yes, Mr Member of Parliament for the bottom left corner of Nowhereshire, but…

Yes, Minister, but…

Yes, Prime Minister, but…

It must be in the tens of thousands.

The hell with it, she had her retirement date now so her pension was safe. “And it’s Janet. Beth’s on maternity leave.”

“Ah yes, of course she is. Hope it’s not one of mine.”

The hairdresser joined the Prime Minister’s chuckle, but he didn’t look up. He was picking his way through the Prime Minister’s yellow hair in a way that reminded Janet of a documentary of chimpanzees grooming each other for lice.

“Well look here, Jane, it took me more than nine months to get Beth’s priorities straight. I know you civil servants gestate your babies faster than you take my hints, but perhaps you can be the exception.”

“Prime Minister?”

The Prime Minister sighed. “Apparently not. That was a hint, you see. Well, I’ll explain. Air Force One is landing in two hours, at which point I’ll be shaking hands with the best coiffed president in American history. I’ll be broadcast from Birmingham to Beijing, and what people need to see is Good Old Boris. Not a tangle of greying roots blithering on about North Korea. That’s what foreign secretaries are for.”

“You’ll look fabulous, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “There won’t be a heart in Birmingham that isn’t a-flutter. Or Beijing.”

Janet glared at him. He winked, letting her know that among the concentric circles surrounding the Prime Minister, a private hairdresser inhabited zone one while a private secretary’s priorities had to commute in from zone four or five.

“As you’re here, Jilly, make yourself useful and tell me something useful about the president. Do MI6 know anything I don’t, or do they get their information from Twitter like the rest of us?”

Janet kept her face carefully neutral. The Prime Minister might not be looking at her, but the hairdresser would love a chance to slip the knife in when she wasn’t in the room. “Yes Prime Minister, but you didn’t request a report.”

“Didn’t I? Oh well, you’re all civil servants, aren’t you? I’m sure you all gossip together. From where I’m sitting, the whole civil service looks like an extended version of Brasenose College. They were always the first to hear what was up. What they know, I’m sure you know.”

“That’s because you’re looking in a mirror. As usual.” Janet spoke under her breath.

Not far enough under her breath. The hairdresser glared.

“What’s that? Speak up,” said the Prime Minister.

“I said I don’t know what MI6 know about the president, Prime Minister.”

“Well what do you think? The civil service always likes to be seen as omniscient. Now’s your chance to prove it. What’s your opinion?”

“Yes Prime Minister, but knowing something is different to having an opinion on it. Civil Servants don’t have those. Not after the first five years or so, anyway.”

The hairdresser tutted.

“Tell you what, Jean,” said the Prime Minister. “You tell me your opinion and I’ll read the briefing on North Korea. Deal?”

Oh what the hell, thought Janet. It wasn’t as if civil service gossip was exactly classified. It was just dangerous to give ministers any information until you’d satisfied yourself it wouldn’t inspire any ideas. “We know he’s a man who felt the need to build a skyscraper and write his name on it, and that he felt the need to bring up the size of his opponent’s hands during the Primaries. I have no opinion on that, but others may draw their own conclusions.”

“They may?” asked the Prime Minister.

“Oh believe me, we do. Take it from a connoisseur.” The hairdresser wiggled his pinkie. “Plenty have before.”

The Prime Minister snorted with laughter. It took Janet a moment to realise the ‘plenty have’ referred to who had taken it. It was like being in conversation with Kenneth Williams. She wouldn’t have blamed Beth if she’d got herself pregnant just to get away from it.

“So that’s what the civil service talks about in the ladies’ loos,” said the Prime Minister.

Janet tried to force a smile. Perhaps she managed to lift one corner of her mouth, but she wouldn’t have put money on it.

“It’s not bad, but I don’t see that it helps,” said the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t going to invite him to compare. Though now you bring it up -” The Prime Minister bit off what he was about to say. Janet doubted he cared about the propriety of it, so he must have realised what conclusions the hairdresser would draw if he continued down that route. “Well if he asks for a companion, make sure she’s briefed not to laugh.”

The hairdresser wagged his eyebrows at Janet. She managed not to roll her eyes.

“Are you going to say it or shall I?” He asked her.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She put all the authority of her decades in the civil service into her tone.

All four of them bounced off the hairdresser. “Come along, don’t be coy. You say a little more than that about him in the ladies’ loos, don’t you? Don’t keep us in suspense. Leak it, dearie, leak it.”

The Prime Minister guffawed, once again alerting Janet to the double-entendre that had passed her by.

She said nothing, leaving the floor to the hairdresser. He seized it like a veteran understudy hearing Hamlet had sprained a vocal chord. “What the lovely lady is too delicate to say is that a string of very public relationships with tall blonde models invites the same delicious conclusions in the ladies’ loos as it does in my favourite nightclub.”

Janet bit her lip. She’d already said too much for a seasoned civil servant. “I really think you should look at the briefing on North Korea, Prime Minister.”

“Sod North Korea, that’s what we’re renewing Trident for. I want to know what you two are saying about the president. Sometime before Air Force One lands, if it’s not too much to ask.”

Janet wondered how a man who saw double-entendres everywhere could be so slow on the uptake. To her relief, the hairdresser was enjoying the role of amateur intelligence analyst too much to want to relinquish it. “It’s what we call trying too hard. Oh my dears, I can’t see a man like that without wanting to give him what he really wants. Generous to a fault, that’s me.”

“Well bugger me!”

“I wouldn’t put it past him to try.”

“Well that’s marvellous. We’ve got him! Janice, get on the phone to MI5 quick smart. I want pictures and sound.”

“I’m sorry, Prime Minister, are you suggesting…”

“No I’m not suggesting, I’m ordering. And you know perfectly well what I’m ordering. It’s hardly as if no one’s ever done it before. How d’you think I passed my A-levels?”

“I knew it, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “You’re a brilliant man.”

The Prime Minister swelled with the praise. “I’m a devious sort, I’ve never denied it. Except in public, of course. Now I know we didn’t have to deal with the Secret Service at Eton, but that’s what we pay MI5 for. He’s not going to want his minders to know, is he? So he can be persuaded to give them the slip. On the phone, Jasmine, on the phone.”

“Yes, Prime Minister, but -”

“How’s the hair?” the Prime Minister asked the hairdresser.

“Perfect, dearie. Prime Ministerial and sexy all in one package.”

“Let us to it pell mell, then. And be clear with the spooks, Jackie. Pictures and sound. I want him in the palm of my hand.”

“It’s Janet, Prime Minister.”

He left without taking the briefing.


I wrote this three years ago and now it’s happened. This should be… interesting.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Jack Under the Table


(Bryn Pinzgauer [CC / Flickr])

A man walked into the room, closed the green door and pressed his back to it. His eyes darted to the window on the wall to his left, then to the window on the other side of the room, then to the blue door. When he saw no one through the windows and was sure the red door was closed, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled under the table in the middle of the room. He lay down on his side, resting his head on his bent arm. The hard line of his mouth softened, releasing his hollow cheeks. The grooves in his forehead faded as his eyes closed.

He didn’t stir when a woman with a Leicester University logo on her T-shirt entered through the green door. At the same, a man wearing an identical T-shirt entered the room through the blue door.

“Oh, there you are, darling,” said the woman. “Have you found Jack? I’ve been looking everywhere for him.”

“Not a scoobies,” said the man. “He’s not answering his phone, either.”

“Wretched man.” The woman sat on the corner of the table, from where she could peer out of both windows. “Not out there either. Mummy can’t take Harry and Ginnie for more than a couple of hours at her age, and then who’s going to take over if we can’t find Jack? We never get any time to ourselves, do we.”

The man stepped closer to her and put an arm around him. The table groaned as she leaned into him, pressing their logos together.

They kissed.

The woman sat up straight. “I bet I know what’s happened. Daddy’s collared him to do something on that stupid computer of his. Let’s go and rescue him.”

“Rescue him?” The man looked confused for a moment, then his eyebrows shot up with the corners of his mouth. “Ah yes, rescue him. And then we can…”

“Yes, darling. We can.”

The table creaked as the woman stood up and they went hand in hand through the blue door.

A man with a shock of grey hair wandered in through the green door.

“Where’s Jack got to this time,” he muttered to himself. “Never around when you need him.”

The grey-haired man sat on the table, still muttering. “I can’t go searching the house from top to bottom at my age, and who else can ever get my email working again? It’s been fine for a week or so, but now it won’t show me Cynthia’s reply to the mail I sent yesterday.” The table swayed but the man showed no sign of having noticed. “It’s hard enough having a daughter in Australia who I hardly ever see, but I know she’ll have replied by now. Must be something wrong with-”

The table groaned and lurched.

The grey-haired man stood up looking guilty. He gave a ‘hm’ of relief when he was sure no one had seen him sitting on it.

“Now where is that Jack…” he left through the blue door.

The green door flew open and hit the wall with a loud bang that did not disturb the man asleep under the table. A young woman in black from the soles of her boots to her dyed hair strode in with an iphone in a black case pressed to her ear.

“Jack,” she said, “Call me back right now. I need you to talk to Frank. He’s being completely unreasonable again and you’re the only one he listens to. I don’t know where you’re skulking right now but please sort this out or I don’t know what I’ll do.”

She put the phone back in her black leather handbag.

“Why do I always get his voicemail when I really need him?” She asked the inside of the room. “I really don’t need this right now.”

She pivoted on the heel of her right boot and hopped up to sit on the table.

The table’s legs folded sideways, lowering the tabletop to the floor with a yelp. It tilted as the man pushed it up and crawled out from under the wreckage.

The woman in black slid to the floor. “Ow.”

She leaped to her feet and looked down at the man, who was holding his head.

“Jack,” she said, “what have you done?”

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Arctic Adagio is on NetGalley

Arctic Adagio coverMy recently published novelette is on NetGalley all month, available to download for anyone who would like to review it. If that’s you, just click, register and download.

I’ll appreciate any or all honest reviews. Much as I’d like you to like it, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.

If you’d like to test the waters, there’s a preview and my thoughts on where the idea came from floating around here somewhere.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Giveaway, Publishing news

For Want of an Acerbic Metaphor


(3dom [CC / Flickr])

This morning’s breakfast was buttered toast, coffee with milk and three sugars and sour grapes. The coffee and toast came from my kitchen. The sour grapes came from skimming the arts pages of the Telegraph on my tablet.

They splashed on his installation. I scrolled through three whole screens of the review before going back to the top to read it word by jagged word.

An empty exercise in vacuous grotesquerie was what their reviewer called my rival’s work. A couple of paragraphs later, it was the most pointless use of a traffic cone since a heavily bevvied student planted one on a litter bin thinking it was a statue of some unlamented benefactor.

I had to wipe the toast crumbs off my screen at that one. I couldn’t fault the reviewer’s perceptiveness; she’d seen straight through his attempts to make a pile of bric-a-brac look like a profound statement. Where I can and do fault her is in her grasp of what was worth the effort of reviewing. I swiped through all of the pages but once again, there was not a word on the installation I’d spent the last six months assembling.

I would forego sugar in my coffee for a week if it would earn one acerbic metaphor, but the reviewer who expended hundreds of words on misplaced traffic cones hasn’t even bothered to visit my lemonade bottles and light bulbs.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Six O’Clock Shuffle


(luisfraguada [CC / Flickr])

The train doors slid open, inviting Zack to his first mistake.  He tried to get on the train.  What else was he supposed to do when a train opened its doors?

A torrent of humanity poured out.  He’d thought he’d seen a crowded subway when he visited Toronto, but it couldn’t compare to this.

A shoulder caught him in the ribs.  “Sorry.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied.

A briefcase knocked his shin.  “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry.”

Zack couldn’t see the individuals he was apologising to in the swarm of people.  It was like swimming against a river in spate.  Five apologies later and he was backed up against the Bank Station sign.  It was only then that he realised the tone of the sorrys he was hearing was far less apologetic than the sorrys he’d been giving.

When he’d told his friends he was visiting London for a week, they challenged him to find an answer to the age old question of who says the most sorrys, British or Canadians.  Less than six hours in London and he had his answer.  The British won because while Canadians said sorry to apologise, the British used it to mean ‘get out of my way’.

The doors rumbled shut and the train swept away.  Commuters drained beneath the yellow ‘Way Out’ sign, expanding empty platform around him.

It had never occurred to Zack that there might be more to getting on a train than stepping through a door, but he’d just seen five hundred people change places between train and platform in half a minute.  They couldn’t have done it without some sort of technique.

He’d only got off the flight from Moose Jaw this morning, but he’d already noticed London bristling with signs pointing a disorientated tourist to every possible destination.  There were so many map boards that all he’d had to do was look around to find one.  On the escalator down to the platform, an announcement had warned him not to slip because stairs got wet during ‘inclement weather’.

If London Transport didn’t trust people to navigate a staircase, they must realise someone would need to be guided through the far more complex problem of boarding a crowded train.

As the next train stirred the air, he concluded there were no signs because everyone knew the technique.  You didn’t get to go home until you learned the steps of the six o’clock shuffle.  From the voices Zack had heard, commuters from Albania through the alphabet to Zimbabwe all knew the dance.  If they had learned it without instruction, so could he.

There must have been a couple of hundred people on the platform by now, all standing equidistant from one another.  They reminded Zack of a shoal of fish holding position against a current, perfectly maintaining their separation without looking at each other.

It came to Zack that it was the second time he’d thought of rivers in a few minutes.  He’d been in London for less than a day, so it was too soon to be pining for the rivers and plains of Saskatoon.  Perhaps the tunnel was making him claustrophobic.

Or perhaps Londoners reminded him of fish.

The train screeched to a halt.  People clustered on either side of the doors as though the flow pattern of the river had changed.  Now Zack was looking for it, the choreography was extraordinary.  Zack was so proud at having followed the footwork that he beamed at a man wearing a suit even he recognised as cheap.

The cheap suited man looked away.  In the midst of several hundred jostling people, Zack had intruded on one man’s solitude.

The doors slid open and expelled a knot of people.  More trickled out in ones and twos.  People inside the car were moving around to let each other to the doors.  When was the appropriate moment to get on? Would Zack be left on the platform again if he missed it?

A general lunge for the train answered Zack’s question.  He staggered to keep his feet and almost put his foot in the gap between train and platform.  A vision of the train grinding his ankle in two played in his mind like an amateur horror film.  Perhaps it distracted him because he was jostled to the middle of the standing space between the doors before he knew what was happening.  The crush made Zack envy a sardine in a tin.  His feet were pressed so close that he’d lose his balance as soon as the train moved.  Too late, he realised it was no coincidence that the novice had ended up furthest from anything to hold on to.

The rail over the doors was within arm’s length, but the man in the cheap suit was bent forward, moulded to the curved roof.  If a smile was an intrusion, how would he react to Zack touching his head?

Zack would be thrown against a young woman who had slotted herself between bodies like a piece in a badly cut jigsaw.  She wore plastic buds in her ears and a serene expression better suited to a deserted beach than a tangle of limbs under Bank.

Calamity was inevitable.

The train lurched forward.  Zack knocked the woman out of her musical reverie.  She lost her grip on a vertical rail and with it, her serene expression.  She fell against the people behind her.  Zack tried to flail for something to hold on to but if the passengers were no longer vertical, they were no less tightly packed.  For a horrible moment, Zack thought he’d started a cascade of human dominoes.  He tried to tell her he hadn’t meant to land on top of her, he was just a bewildered Canadian tourist, but his words were lost in the echo of machinery in a tunnel.

The mass of people dissipated his weight.  Deathgrips on overhead rails kept anyone from tilting past the point of no return.  Passengers pulled themselves upright, echoing Zack’s bodyweight back to him and setting him back on his feet.

The woman glared.

“I’m so sorry,” said Zack.

“Sorry,” she said.

Zack had never heard an apology sound like an obscenity before.

Her anger cut deeper than the cheap-suited man’s indifference.  Zack steeled himself and reached for the rail.  His hand brushed the man’s head.  The man moved aside without looking at Zack.  It was the same motion he’d made to duck under the doorway to get on the train.

Zack scanned the heads around him.  Every pair of eyes was focused on a far horizon shared with no one else.  With time to think, he began to see how it worked.  People surrendered their physical space but defended their psychological space by pretending no one else existed.  If he became a ghost among ghosts, perhaps no one else would bark ‘sorry’ at him.

The crush eased as the train moved away from central London.  Zack breathed a sigh of relief when the man in the cheap suit got off, removing a key witness to his breaches of protocol.  The music-loving woman found an empty seat.  He faded into a comfortable invisibility.

As the music lover sat down, her phone fell out of her bag.  The train’s vibration edged it across the floor while the woman closed her eyes and followed her music to a better place.

Zack had once seen a film of the Coronation, but the etiquette followed by Northern Line commuters made lords and archbishops before their queen look like toddlers at a birthday party.  If there was a protocol for boarding a train and a protocol for staying upright on it, there must be a protocol for absconding phones.  One more gaffe risked uniting everyone in the car to fling him off at the next stop.

The phone was seeking sanctuary under a folding seat, or rather under the sari of the grandmotherly woman sitting in it.  In a few moments, it would be impossible to retrieve the phone without disturbing her, which would add another layer of etiquette to negotiate.

Zack looked for a cue but no one else was reacting.  Was that because nobody had noticed or because it was polite to pretend they hadn’t?

Zack’s weight shifted from his feet to the rail her was clinging to.  The train was slowing down.  The woman edged forward on her seat, returning from an ethereal palace of her own construction.  Only one thing could entice her back to a rattling steel tube haunted by a clumsy Canadian.

This must be her stop.

If nobody else had noticed, it was up to Zack to save her from leaving her phone on the train.  If the done thing was to ignore it, a flying visit to anywhere called Golders Green couldn’t be all bad.  Anything he said was bound to be wrong, so he kept his mouth shut as he picked up the phone and handed it to her.

Her gaze snapped out of her imaginary refuge and landed on his face.  Zack held his breath, waiting for the worst.

She smiled.  “Thank you so much.”

Zack considered her tone.  No subtext that he could detect.  Her thanks were sincere.

By the time he dared believe it, she was off the train and gone.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Life by Screen and Microwave


(Sigfrid Lundberg [CC / Flickr])

You see a bus full of heads bent over tiny screens, each one stamped with a different logo that came from the same Foxconn factory. Tops of heads tell you nothing of use, which is why you need me to skip among the microwaves to glean the stories they’re hiding.

Take that girl by the window. You see her as a seriously dressed girl in her early twenties with a few strands of loose hair hanging on either side of her Samsung. I see a young woman – you did program me to use more respectful terms than you use yourself – who will turn twenty-eight next week. What’s got my attention is that she’s been staring at the same screen for two minutes and forty-seven seconds without scrolling or switching apps, which tells me something very significant indeed has happened. I focus my attention and I see her life has just fallen apart.

That text she’s reading and re-reading is telling her, I’ve packed my stuff and I’ll be gone before you get home. Have a nice life.

It’s followed by, I drank the last tea while I was packing so you’ll need to pick some up on the way home. I know you won’t survive an evening without Earl Grey. Lol.

What he hasn’t told her was that their Netflix account was in his name and he’s changed the password, so you’ll want to load her feed with discounts for a new subscription, and throw in a few bulk discounts for red wine for when she realises she needs more than tea. I’ll keep an eye on what she’s binge watching and let you know when she starts watching romcoms again so you’ll know when it’s time to push the dating apps at her.

Now look a couple of seats behind her. The boy with the floppy hair. Yes, I’m calling him a boy. He’ll be eighteen for another three months. If you want me to call him a young man before that, change my settings. He’s only been on that screen for twenty-eight seconds but that’s three times his average time between touching his iPhone and it’s getting longer as we watch him.

That’s because he’s looking at an email telling him he hasn’t been accepted into medical school. He may be wondering what he’s going to do with the rest of his life now his dreams have been crushed, or he may be wondering what to post next after three weeks of incessantly tweeting about how his exams were a breeze. He’ll think of something in a minute, so make sure there are some adverts for universities taking students through clearing waiting for him.

Across the aisle from him is a man on a full five minutes of one screen, though he’s over forty so it’s taken him longer to triple his average single screen time than it’s taken the other two. His wife has just Whatsapped him that her pregnancy test’s come up positive and added a lulz. That will be their fourth child and by the shaking hand I can detect through his Huawei’s accelerometer, it’s not planned.

Hold the usual baby bonanza. They’ll know where to get their nappies from by now and they’ll have a push chair tucked away somewhere. What he’ll need, as soon as he’s had five minutes with a pen and paper to work it out, is a bank offering a really good overdraft facility.

That’s the first three. Would you call this a successful test so far? Taking a look at the smile I can see through the camera you didn’t mean to give me access to, you might want to put some discount champagne on your own feed.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 468 other followers