The 390 to the North


(Martin49 [CC / Flickr])

The day began so well that I should have known the man upstairs had his clown suit on. I caught the 390 bus to Tufnell Park, where my friends would be waiting. Saturday afternoon in the pub and Chelsea in the cup final. What could be better?

I didn’t notice something was up until we’d cruised past a couple of stops. It wasn’t rush hour, so perhaps no one wanted to get on or off. When we passed Staples Corner, I saw someone trying to wave the bus down. His look of open-armed, open-mouthed ‘what the hell?’ made me pay attention. It’s the same look you see on a striker’s face when the ref disallows his winning goal for being offside.

The bus not stopping was strange, but what was even stranger was that we weren’t supposed to be anywhere near Staples Corner. I’ve taken the 390 enough times to know that. I was even more sure that it wasn’t supposed to be tearing down the sliproad on to the M1, and the engine wasn’t supposed to be screaming like the Arsenal crowd had all caught a cold at the moment they wanted to cheer a winning goal.

Then again, Gooners always sound like that.

The woman across the aisle was looking at me with wide eyes, and I found myself looking back at her. When you catch someone’s eye on London Transport and they don’t look away, you know things are bad.

The she spoke to me. It was a direct violation of the unwritten, unspoken code of buses and tube trains: don’t ever acknowledge the existence of another living person. It’s how you preserve your sanity when one stranger’s bum is jammed in your crotch and your face is pressed into another’s armpit.

“Do you think this is a short cut?” she asked.

Her accent was pure West London. No chance she was a foreigner who didn’t know how many lines she’d just crossed. This was indeed an emergency.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think buses take short cuts.”

We both looked forward to where the partition hid the driver.

“Perhaps we should ask him.” She didn’t sound like she was volunteering. Speaking to one stranger on a bus must have been her quota for the day.

I tried to remember what the driver looked like, but I couldn’t remember. I’d just swiped my oyster card and shuffled into the bus, thinking I could murder a Stella when I get to the pub. If Chelsea in the final isn’t an excuse for afternoon boozing, what is?

“It’s just…I don’t want to be late for my Zumba class,” said the woman.

Hard to argue with that. I got up and worked my way forward, from one handgrip to another. The bus was swaying in a manner that suggested double-deckers were never designed for the speed we were doing, though plenty of cars were overtaking without half the effort the bus’s engine was screaming about. After a lifetime of trundling from traffic light to bus stop, the freedom of the motorway had come as a shock to the engine.

The driver looked normal enough. A middle-aged white guy who looked so well fitted to the driver’s seat that he might have been part of the bus.

“Hi there,” I said. “Where are we going?”

He rotated his head toward me. “Passengers must not speak to the driver while the vehicle is in motion.”

“OK…” The road ahead was straight, which was fortunate as he was now looking directly at me instead of where we were going. “I’ll go back, but could you please tell me -”

Passengers must not…oh, you heard the first time. Naff off.”

He was looking straight at me now, with a pair of eyes so black that it was like looking down the muzzles of a pair of cannon. It was a clear, sunny day. There was no reason for his pupils to be that dilated. At least, there was none that made me feel any happier about our blind northward charge.

I tried a different tack. “Does that apply on the motorway?”

“Eh?” His face wrinkled in thought. “D’you know, I dunno. Buses don’t go on motorways, so there aren’t no rules about it. Bit of a poser, that.”

He turned his head back to the road. I hoped that was progress of some sort. “So, where are we going?”

“Going? I dunno. Land’s End. John O’Groats. Does it matter? Narnia. Yeah, let’s go to Narnia!”

“Well, there’s a lady who’s worried about missing her Zumba class. I don’t think they know about Zumba in Narnia.”

“Oh, she’ll be fine. Hey, look at that.”

He was looking in the wing mirror. I looked behind to see blue flashing lights.  As I watched, a second police car powered down a slip road to join the car and two motorbikes behind us.

“They’re coming to Narnia too,” said the driver.

I was still trying to think of an answer to that when a bang and a lurch threw me off my feet. I bounced off the windscreen and ended up sitting on the floor, facing backward. The engine noise was drowned out by a howl of tortured metal, sounding like ten thousand souls in torment at once. It was more Man United than Arsenal now.

“What are you doing down there?” The driver shouted over the racket. “Stand straight! Look forward! Think positive or we’ll all be a goner!”

The bus was rattling around in a way that put standing out of the question. I smelled burning, and realised we’d gone over one of those contraptions the police use to blow the tyres out.

“We’re going to Narnia! Think positive!” shouted the driver.

“How can we make it to Narnia?” I shouted back. “You forgot to bring the wardrobe!”

The driver looked stricken. The noise faded, suggesting he’d taken his foot off the accelerator.

“I knew there was something,” he said as the 390 shuddered to a halt.

I spent the afternoon in the police station, giving statements and failing to persuade them I wanted something a lot stronger than the cups of tea they plied me with. It wasn’t the day I’d been looking forward to.

And Chelsea lost on penalties.

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Coldwater Cottage – 6: The Father

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5

Coldwater CottageIan stared back at the door, shut as it so often had been while a fire burned inside and rain fell outside.

“You’re not coming in until you’ve chopped that wood!” The unshaven head disappeared as the window slammed shut.

“You’ll stay outside until you’ve caught us a couple of rabbits. It’ll be good for you!” Jack’s face appeared at her bedroom window, her palms pressed to the glass as though reaching out for him.

Dad had been determined to be self-sufficient. It was a favourite word of his, like manly and deadweight.

“You’ll learn to be manly if it kills the pair of us,” to Ian.

“I never wanted a girl! You’re just a deadweight,” to Jack.

Ian’s hand drifted through the soil, feeling no more than a slight resistance through the glove. A mist of fine particles rose before him. He remembered bunching his fists in that soil and watching blood drip on to the grass from his lip or nose after one of Dad’s attempts at homeschooling. Dad’s gifts as a teacher had been as meagre as Ian’s as a pupil, and frustration was never more than one step away from flying fists. Ian never cried. He’d learned not to make that mistake at a very early age. He’d clench his fingers into the soil as though trying to pull it out from under Dad, the house and his entire life. “Bastard,” he’d say, “bastard, bastard, bastard.”

Ian jerked his head, annoyed he’d let his thoughts wander. Forget ‘manly’ and ‘self-sufficient’. The word he needed to remember now was ‘narcosis’. Before his first training dive below eighteen meters, the instructor had told him to write his phone number backwards. He’d done it without hesitation, but when she handed him a pad on the bottom, he’d had to wring the digits out of his memory, and even then he’d mixed two of them up. It was as clear a demonstration of the effect of nitrogen under pressure on the human brain as he could have asked for. Yet here he was drifting through memories he’d spent half his life trying to forget instead of keeping an eye on his air. A hundred and fifty bars left, and he’d only been down for fourteen minutes. He shouldn’t have let his breathing run away with him.

Next week: The Door

The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo


Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

Nose for a Wrong ‘Un


(Thomas Bunton [CC / Flickr])

Seeing is believing. I’ll not let you or anyone else tell me otherwise.

I knew he was a wrong ‘un the moment he came into the shop, which is why I had my beady eye on him in the first place. I’ve got a nose for his sort. That’s why they took me out of that cheap security guard uniform and put me in plain clothes in the first place. Now you, I could tell you were a copper at fifty paces. Detective constable now, sergeant in a year or two and inspector by the time you’re forty.

The opposite of him.

I followed him past frozen foods and when he turned left instead of heading for the cheese, I knew where he was going. I kept going past refrigerated, turned left at the rack full of soya milk, followed the aisle along and there he was at the booze. Right where I knew he’d be.

No, I didn’t follow him there. He’d have seen me, wouldn’t he? Wrong ‘uns like him have eyes in the back of their head. When you’re up to no good in every waking hour, you get to know when you’re being watched.

I pretended I was browsing through the toothpaste while he was looking for the priciest bottles. All right, I’ll admit it wasn’t the best cover in the world. Not a lot of people waste time choosing between Colgate and Sensodyne, but that’s what’s next to the booze so I had to look like I was doing something while I kept line of sight.

So I can tell you that missing bottle went under his coat. In fact, let me think, yes, I saw him take it. His right hand, he used. The one closer to me. See, I remember the detail. That shows I saw it, and I know what I saw.

I followed him to the exit tills. Watched him pay for a Mars bar he picked up on the way. Cover, that was. He didn’t want to draw attention by walking in and out without buying anything. It might have worked if I wasn’t already on to him.

What d’you mean, he didn’t have no booze on him? Damn, he must have clocked me and got rid of it on the way out. Must have been when he went round the corner, through the cuddly toys.

I saw him take it, plain as I can see you cut yourself shaving yesterday. See, I don’t miss much. Your cut’s a day old. I can tell with one glance.

Sure, let’s have a look at the CCTV. You’ll see what I’m on about.

There he is. Look at him, he’s so crooked he can hardly walk down a straight aisle. Now he’s stopping at the booze like I said.

That woman? No, I don’t remember her. No reason I would. My job is the wrong ‘uns. She must be, what, seven months pregnant? She’s just passing the booze on her way up to the healthcare section where I am. She won’t be interested in booze in her condition, will she?

I wouldn’t have registered her when I was focused on Johnny Lightfingers there. I’m telling you, if you didn’t have it on him when you caught him then it’s buried in a pile of teddy bears. I only lost sight of him for a couple of seconds, but that’s as long as his sort needs.

Yeah, yeah, I’m watching closely. That’s my job, you don’t need to tell me how to do it. I’m watching that right hand of his, like I was when I was at the toothpaste.

Miss what?

OK, let’s rewind. You want me to watch the woman?

OK, you’re the copper but I don’t see…

OK, so she took a bottle. Must be for her husband. So she put it under coat. Big deal. She forgot to pick up a basket or a trolley, and walking must be hard work for her.

Hang on.

Is she wearing a pouch under there?

She’s not pregnant at all, the little…rewind a bit, will you, I want a proper look at her face.

Look at her walking up that aisle. Eyes flicking all over the place. Look up ‘shifty’ in the dictionary and you’ll find her picture.

She’s a wrong ‘un if ever I saw one.

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Non-fiction Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

TheInventionOfNatureLong before I knew who he was, Alexander von Humboldt had exercised a major influence over me. I first encountered his name in an undergraduate oceanography lecture, when I learned about the Humboldt current that flows northward along the Pacific coast of South America. By the time I visited the Humboldt Redwoods in California, many years later, I was vaguely aware that he was among history’s more influential naturalists. It’s taken Andrea Wulf’s extensive and extremely readable biography to properly introduce me to the man behind a name that appears on maps with a frequency usually reserved for kings and queens, and to understand how much I have been influenced by a man who died more than a hundred years before I was born.

Wulf takes us from Humboldt’s youth in the lower echelons of the Prussian aristocracy, his chafing against his training as a mining engineer and his early friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with whom he shared an interest in natural history. Much of The Invention of Nature is focused on the five years he spent in South America that were the making of him. He crossed little-known regions of what are now Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru and climbed so many volcanoes that he became the world’s most experienced mountaineer.

Many years ago, I made an ill-advised attempt to climb Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador. I vividly remember breathing in air so cold it hurt my sinuses while standing on a glacier that felt almost vertical. Humboldt scaled Cotopaxi long before there were such things as specialised mountaineering equipment or experienced guides. He went on to attempt Mount Chimborazo, which was then regarded as the world’s highest mountain and still is if calculated from the centre of the Earth. He didn’t reach the summit, but he got high enough to record an altitude of 19,413 feet (5917m), higher than anyone had ascended before.

His record would stand until it was beaten by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac in a hot air balloon, possibly watched by Humboldt himself who lived in Paris at the time. Typically, Humbold was more interested in comparing his measurements of the atmosphere at different altitudes than reclaiming his record. He and Gay-Lussac collaborated in further research and gave joint lectures at the Académie de Sciences in Paris.

Throughout his South American escapades, Humboldt and his companion, Aimé Bonpland, recorded and collected every plant or animal they could lay their hands on. Had Humboldt restricted himself to climbing mountains and pressing leaves, he would have ranked among the great 19th century explorers and naturalists, but he went a step further. He described not only individual organisms but the way they grouped together. His description of Chimborazo focused not on his own adventure, but on the different groupings of animals and plants that he’d seen at different altitudes. His invention of nature, to use Wulf’s term, took him categorising organisms to thinking of nature as a system. It would take one of his many intellectual disciples, Ernst Haeckel, to coin the word Oecologie, later anglicised to ‘ecology’, but Haeckel credited Humboldt with being the first to describe the natural world in such terms.

As Humboldt started to see nature as a system, so he started to see how human activity could affect it. He saw large areas left barren by slash-and-burn agriculture practiced there, intended to grow crops for export while food was imported, mainly from the nascent USA. Worse was that the system depended on slavery and debt peonage. By the time he returned to Europe, Humboldt was almost as passionate an abolitionist as he was a naturalist.

His antipathy toward the tyranny he’d seen would catch the imagination of a young man called Simon Bolìvar whom he met later in Paris. Bolìvar was making the ‘grand tour’ of Europe that scions of well-to-do families made to sow their wild oats around the major European cities. Humboldt’s spoke to him of his love for the lands he had travelled and the people he had met, but not the Spanish overlords who he saw as oppressing and enslaving them. Bolìvar acknowledged Humboldt as one of the inspirations for the revolution he would lead against the Spanish.

While Humboldt proved to be well-tuned to the politics of South America, he appears to have been more naïve when he visited North America on the way back to Europe. As a regular guest in the White House, he became a friend of President Thomas Jefferson and freely gave his views on natural history, and also the political and agricultural systems he had found so objectionable. While Jefferson’s interest in natural history was genuine, Humboldt was also being pumped for economic intelligence. Humboldt wrote in praise of the USA’s commitment to the principles of liberty but perhaps because he did not travel in North America as he did in South America, he did not then realise that he was praising a country whose economy was as dependent on the slavery he was excoriating to a man who was himself an owner of slaves.

Humboldt spent most of the rest of his life between Paris and Berlin, where he wrote the Personal Narrative of his travels that made him one of the most admired natural philosophers in the world and introduced his ideas on natural systems that remain his lasting legacy. He spent many years trying to get permission to explore British India, which was never granted. At the age of 60, he secured permission for an expedition through Russia, which he undertook with such energy that he left his much younger travelling companions exhausted as they struggled to keep up with him. He then developed his ideas further with the multivolume Kosmos.

Humboldt’s life was extraordinary enough to be worth reading for itself, but The Invention of Nature goes further to trace his influence on later generations of naturalists. Humboldt’s Personal Narrative inspired the young Charles Darwin to embark on HMS Beagle, and he referred extensively to his copy on the voyage. As Humboldt came to see nature in terms of systems through his travels in South America, so Darwin came to look not only for plants and animals to describe but for how they interacted with each other. He would not come to describe natural selection, the system he is most famous for, until years after his return from South America but The Voyage of the Beagle contains a description of the formation of coral atolls that had not changed by the time I was introduced to the concept at about the same time as I was introduced to the Humboldt Current. The influence of Humboldt’s systemic approach is plain in the description, as Darwin was already thinking beyond what he observed and asking himself how it came to be so.

Henry David Thoreau took his own copy of Personal Narrative on his sojourn at Walden’s Pond, and spent many hours studying it. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, was a great admirer of Humboldt and freely admitted his influence.

The ubiquity of Humboldt’s name on maps and in zoological catalogues illustrates how famous he was in his day. In 1869, the centenary of his birth was celebrated with parades across the globe, from New York to Buenos Aires to his home city of Berlin. Perhaps because of the denigration of German culture after the world wars, he is no longer as famous as many of his disciples although his ideas live on.

The power of Humboldt’s invention as nature as a system is such that many of us who think in such terms today do not realise the influence that Humboldt has on us. Some years ago, I gave a series of talks about the coevolution of humans and the viruses that infect us. I tipped my hat to a number of the giants on whose shoulders I was standing, but I didn’t know that I’d taken ideas that Humboldt conceived on the slopes of Chimborazo and applied them to the human body.

Thanks to Andrea Wulf, I do now.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Coldwater Cottage – 5: The Wrasse

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4

Coldwater CottageHe’d seen plenty of ballan wrasses before. Every one of them had thrashed their tails to put as much distance as they could between themselves and him, which was a prudent reaction from a fish no larger than his forearm. Could he have been mistaken? He lowered his hand and the white spots were unmistakable, even if the wrasse’s true colour was reduced to a uniform grey at this depth. The wrasse rammed his mask again and knocked his head back. He felt his fins scrape something solid, which seemed to infuriate the fish. It thumped against Ian’s head again and again. It was like being swatted with a magazine, harmless in itself but he couldn’t orientate himself and fend off the wrasse at the same time.

He flicked on the flashlight clipped to his jacket. The wrasse flashed into iridescent red and green in the powerful light, then it was gone with a flick of its tail. Ian played the light on the straight edges in front of him. Flaking paint that had once been white glowed back at him. The glare blinded him to anything outside the beam, so he switched it off. The frame of a roof reached upward from the block. Ian saw the slate tiles scattered beneath him. A knot of nausea tied itself into the pit of his stomach. He finned around the house, taking in cracked window panes that still held unbroken glass and the door he ran out of eleven years ago and swore never to pass through again. The door he’d promised Jakki he would pass through if by some impossible chance it was still there.

Because it was impossible. There was no way a ramshackle cottage could fall off the top of a cliff without being ground into fragments. Yet here it was, not quite level but still standing on what looked like a layer of soil that must have come down from the cliff, right below where he’d started his dive.

Next week: The Father

The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo


Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

Not in Service



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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Coldwater Cottage – 4: The Descent

Previous instalments: 1 2 3

Coldwater CottageThe ripples solidified into bare boulders as he dropped closer to them. In a year they’d be covered in weed. Darting fish would be hunting weed-eating snails and dodging larger fish, but now the debris of the landslide was as barren as the surface of the moon.

One of the shapes below him had unnaturally straight lines. Straight lines belonged to artificial objects like wrecks, not to boulders. He heard his breathing quicken and felt the pressure in his chest as the regulator’s diaphragm refused to move far enough to give his body the air it demanded. It felt like the beginning of suffocation, and it could start a vicious cycle in which his demand for air would increase as he felt he wasn’t getting enough. The greater his demand, the less it would be satisfied. He forced himself to slow his breathing and to ignore the protest from his lungs. They would find relief if they would just wait for the airflow to catch up with what they thought they needed.

Which left his mind free to contemplate the block he was sinking toward. He let some air into his drysuit to slow his descent and put out his fingertips to touch the block. Hard sponginess through the gloves. Something grey thudded into his mask and he jerked his head back. He looked around to see what it was. It hit him again, knocking his regulator so a trickle of salt water stung his tongue. He worked his jaw to reposition the regulator. He threw a hand in front of his face as his assailant came back.

“What the hell?”

The words were a mumble in his regulator but he’d got a clear look at the fish before it batted into his hand.

Next week: The Wrasse

The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo


Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

Return of the Voice


(C. Comeau [CC / Flickr])

Should I say something? Anything in particular you’d like to hear? You want to hear about my radical student days, back in the nineties? Yeah, I know, I was two decades late. Sitting around gabbing about how the fascist regime would electronically tag us as we passed the bong wasn’t hip anymore. We were a last outpost of the seventies, besieged by Thatcher’s children telling each other how they’d start their own business the moment they graduated and be millionaires by the time they were thirty. I was a hippy in a nursery for yuccas.

Yuccas? I think something went wrong there. The word I was thinking of was spelled Y-U-P-P-I-E. Can we update its dictionary for an old fogie? OK, I’ll keep going for now.

The noughties. Or rather the two thousands – OK, it understood noughties? That’s a relief, it was starting to make me feel old.

I wore a suit, went to work, got married, forgot about the fascists trying to tag us and spent two hundred quid on my first mobile phone. I didn’t occur to me for years that I was subsidising that tagging program we’d talked about when we were stoned.

I’ve had time to do a lot of thinking since then.

Fast forward to twenty seventeen. Nine years ago. The divorce. The boozing. Or was it the other way round? I’ve never been sure about that. The boozing and driving didn’t start until after the divorce, I’m sure of that.

I know you’re wondering if I ran off the road deliberately. The truth is, so am I. My memory of that evening gets blurrier and blurrier and blots out completely when I leave the pub. I was in what several people told me was a downward spiral at the time. The court had barred me from seeing you because of the drinking, so I drank more and the more I drank, the less likely the court was to rescind the order. I know I wouldn’t have got behind the wheel drunk when I was looking forward to seeing you again, so…well, I’ll say this for complete paralysis: it got me on the wagon a damn sight quicker than Alcoholics Anonymous ever did.

Which is ironic because I’ve never needed a drink like I did when people peered down at me and discussed whether I was in here. I spent years wanting to scream, ‘yes, yes, I’m in here! Can’t you hear me?’, which was stupid of me because of course I knew no one could hear a word I was thinking. All I could do was blink and hope someone got the message.

You did. The first time you were in here. I didn’t know it was your eighteenth birthday, the first day you weren’t bound by the court order. The first thing you did was rush to the side of the father who walked out on you for a bottle.

That was the day I stopped wanting a drink.

You were well on the way to being an electronic engineer by the day of the patch. You used to study by my bedside in the months it took to synch my motor impulses to it. Once I got it right, you couldn’t shut me up. Words flowed on to the screen as fast as I could pretend I was typing them.

It seems so primitive now. The walker took it a step further. You have no idea how it felt to have control of myself when I took a walk outside. Not to depend on someone else pushing me around. I still missed the feel of the sun and the breeze, but I could see the sun and hear the wind. In spring, I can sometimes smell the flowers, though that comes and goes.

Does this thing do emotion? I’d be breaking down in tears right now if it was my own voice. Oh well, perhaps you’ll be able to put it in the next version.

Am I babbling, like I did when I worked that patch out? It’s weird to hear myself. I never used to like the sound of my voice in those recordings you used to synthesise it. I can’t imagine how I managed to feel like that now. It’s like hearing an old friend.

And now I’m talking about my voice, I suddenly don’t know what to say. What in the world can an old man say to the daughter who gave his voice back to him?


Inspired by a recent report on High performance communication by people with paralysis using an intracortical brain-computer interface.

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Coldwater Cottage – 3: The Sister

Previous instalments: 1 2

Coldwater CottageHe glanced at his dive computer. Six meters. The boat had already disappeared. The vermilion sleeve of his drysuit faded to grey as the sea drained the red from the light reaching him. He could be anywhere, going anywhere or nowhere. No, that wasn’t true, he thought, irritated with himself. His bubbles showed him which way was up and the depth gauge on his dive computer told him he was going down. There were plenty of ways to know where he was and where he was going, and forgetting them was exactly the sort of thing that could make diving dangerous. Another thing being equipment failure, which was why you didn’t dive alone.

So why was he diving alone? The reasons had seemed to make sense when he was on the boat. There was nothing in the PADI course about what to do when the sister you left behind eleven years ago appears on your doorstep, demanding a token of a mother she thinks she remembers that only you can find and only if you go alone.

He remembered opening the door to her and trying to work out which of his runaways and tearaways had adopted a new look of cropped blonde hair, black eye shadow and pierced tongue and eyebrow. Her intertwined hands rose in front of her mouth as he looked at her. “It’s me, Ian. It’s Jack.”

“Jack?” Her eyes met his, and he knew her. He just didn’t believe it yet.

“Jack. Your sister. Only it’s Jakki now.”


“So I can come in then?”

Thirteen meters. Ian saw ripples in the gloom before him, then shapes. He allowed himself a sense of relief. The deeper he went, the faster he would use up air. With the bottom at twenty meters, he should be able to stay down for a good half hour, which should be enough to persuade Jakki he’d made a proper search when he told her he couldn’t find the house.

Next week: The Descent

The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo


Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Inhale, Exhale


(Ben Raynal [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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