Fried Nostalgia for Breakfast

 

(Ian Turk [CC / Flickr])

The trouble with having guests staying overnight was that they tried to thank Tom by making him breakfast. It took all his restraint not to manhandle them the pair of them into the living room and just when he thought it was as bad as it could get, they started listening to the news. They weren’t even using a radio but one of those wireless slabs of metal and plastic that was called a phone these days.

She’d have no idea what to make of that, and she’d always got upset when something confused her.

Tom asked them to turn it off, which they did with no more than a raised eyebrow each. Their expressions turned a little more perplexed when the turned on the tape recorder he kept on top of the fridge, and filled the kitchen with the voice of Terry Wogan talking about the Spice Girls.

They could be as perplexed as they liked as long as she was comfortable, and listening to Terry Wogan on Radio 2 had always been part of her morning routine.

Tom didn’t object to the bacon sizzling in the frying pan. She’d always liked a bacon sandwich for breakfast, but they wouldn’t know how she liked it. He took the spatula away from them before they could mess it up.

They were backing away now, which meant they’d got the message without him having to say anything too harsh. At least, that was what Tom thought until they asked if he had a board so they could chop the mango they’d bought from Lidl.

A mango?

Tom pressed his lips together, afraid he might shout at them if he allowed his mouth to open before he’d counted to three. She’d never seen a mango in her life, and she’d certainly never heard of Lidl. If it hadn’t come from Marks and Sparks or one of the local greengrocers, it didn’t get through the door.

Sliced brown Hovis and Flora margarine, that was what went with bacon.

They’d stopped trying to help now, so hopefully they’d got the message.

He looked up to the top of the cupboard, where neither of them had even thought to glance. “That’ll do us.”

They wouldn’t hear his whisper over the crackle of oil and Bryan Adams crowing over his first real six-string from the tape recorder.

“That’ll do us, love.”

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Shooting the Deserving

ShootingTheDeserving

(Josh Beasley [CC / Flickr])

Hooper looked down at the man he’d shot four hours earlier. Handcuffed to a hospital bed with his right shoulder encased in plaster, he didn’t recognise the man who had tried to shoot the prime minister. The blue eyes that fluttered open looked almost gentle.

“You asked to see me?” Hooper sat in the chair next to the bed.

The man tried to roll toward him, which sent a wince of pain across his face although he didn’t make a sound. He slackened, looking up at the ceiling. “You must be the copper who shot me.”

The accent sounded like the product of an expensive education.

“I am,” said Hooper.

“Good shot.” The gunman gingerly turned his head toward Hooper. “Wrong target, but good shot.”

“Near enough. I was aiming for centre mass so be grateful I was slightly off.”

Hooper guessed that a man who spoke with a privately educated accent would have learned his way around a handgun at Sandhurst, so he’d know that centre mass meant the middle of the body where a bullet was usually fatal.

“I mean that I was the one aiming at the right target. Not you.”

“I’m a police officer.” He wasn’t going to give the gunman a sympathetic audience for some sort of justification either.

The gunman reached for the hospital bed controls with his left hand, but the handcuff stopped him short. “Be a good chap and help me sit up, will you?”

Hooper pressed the button that raised the top of the bed, lifting the gunman into a sitting position.

“Thanks. Difficult to take myself seriously from the supine. And I didn’t expect you to agree with me. I’d just like to get a sense of how you feel about protecting a man like that.”

Hooper concentrated on keeping his face neutral.

“You were sharp enough to see me coming. The first any of your colleagues knew was when you were already shooting. So I know you’re nobody’s fool.”

“I can call the nurse if you need more morphine.” Hooper didn’t want the gunman to get hypnotised by the sound of his own voice. He recognised the tone from when he’d been in uniform. This was a man who had been keeping his plans to himself for so long that he’d built up a desperate need to talk about them and now that keeping them secret didn’t no longer matters, they were all spilling out.

“Thing is, you saw who I was in a heartbeat, so you can’t have missed who the prime minister is. He’s been prancing around in front of cameras for so long that the whole country knows it, and you sit next to him in his limousine, hear his phone calls, see what really goes on between him and his girlfriend.”

So much for trying to derail him. Hooper went for plan B, which was to wait for the gunman to get it out of his system.

“We’re talking about a man so used to privilege that he feels a genuine sense of injustice on the rare occasions that he can’t have his cake and eat it. A man who has never kept a promise when it suits him to break it or told the truth when a lie is more convenient. It was only a couple of years ago that he was leading the cheers when his mob voted down a proposal that you boys in blue should get a pay rise that wasn’t below inflation. I’d like to know how it feels to protect a man who believes you’re worth a little less every year.”

Hooper thought it best not to reply.

“Oh come on, don’t tell me you’ve never thought of shooting him yourself.”

Hooper tried to turn the twitch of his lip into a sardonic smile, but the gunman’s much broader smile told him he hadn’t pulled it off. One of the reasons he’d opted for being a firearms officer instead of a detective was that he couldn’t keep his face as neutral as it needed to be when he was interviewing suspects.

“Of course you have,” said the gunman, “not that you’d ever do it of course. But there’s only so much time you can spend with a man like that before the first time that gun under your armpit starts to feel like a temptation. And once it’s tempted you once, that gun tempts you a little more every time he says or does something to remind you what he really is. I imagine that’s every five minutes in his case.”

Hooper focused on a crack in the paintwork on the wall.

“And perhaps if I’d given you a moment to think instead of trying to take the shot as soon as I saw you looking at me, you might have given me a moment to get a couple of rounds off. Believe me, that’s all I’d need. He’s hardly a small target.”

“If I’d had another moment,” said Hooper, “I’d have used it to aim better.”

“I wonder.” A smile played around the gunman’s lips. Hooper hoped it meant he’d talked himself out.

“My opinion of the prime minister is irrelevant.”

“You’re a professional.” The gunman’s tone was mocking, letting Hooper know he didn’t believe him.

“Yes, I am a professional. In a profession I chose after I’d thought it through. I never expected to be protecting saints. It’s not my job to judge them. My job is to stop assassination and terrorism from becoming the way politics are done in this country. If I’d hesitated and you’re as good a shot as you say you are, a hundred people with grudges wouldn’t be tweeting about what they want to do to whoever they shout at on the telly right now. They’d be googling how to do it. Most of them would be back to Twitter by tomorrow morning but two or three will have a go and if one of them draws one drop of blood from whoever they hate, they’ll set off another hundred. All thinking that if you could shoot a prime minister, they can shoot, stab or blow up whoever they want to shut up.

“We’ll stop some of them. We’ll probably stop most of them. But we won’t stop all of them so it will only be a matter of time before someone gets shot or stabbed or blown up. Maybe it will be someone who deserves it and maybe it won’t but either way, by the time it happens it will be how things are done in this country. From what you said about being tempted by a gun, I don’t think I need to tell you what that looks like. That’s why I don’t have any decisions to make when a terrorist pulls a gun. I made that decision a long time ago.”

“Quite a speech.” The gunman looked away from Hooper, his smile gone. “Is there more where that came from?”

“No.”

“You’re right of course. Those are principles I’ve pulled a trigger for myself a few times. But anger and frustration are funny things. Tend to blot out principles after a while, don’t you find?”

Hooper said nothing.

“Well, perhaps not for you. But you’re right. Forgetting them does make me a terrorist.” The gunman spoke the last word as if it tasted foul.

Hooper waited until he was sure the gunman had no more to say. He stood and pressed the gunman’s right hand, not shaking it because of his injured shoulder.

The gunman looked back at him, eyes wide in surprise. “What was that for?”

“Because you’re right too and I wish I hadn’t been on duty today because the lying tosser does need shooting.”

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Blue Reminiscence

BlueReminiscence

(Flavio~ [CC / Flickr])

My favourite colour is blue because it reminds me of you. I think it started with the cornflower dress you were wearing when we first met. Do you remember that?

No?

I’ll never forget the way it set off your blonde hair tumbling behind your shoulders, with a few maverick strands sneaking across the front of them.

But you must remember I was wearing my periwinkle blue shirt. I’ll never throw that shirt away. You must know it, I wear it every other time I see you. Long sleeves, white buttons… all right, I’ll wear it next time we meet up and point it out to you.

Then there was the Uber we took that first time we shared a taxi. A picotee blue Ford Fiesta. We stopped at your flat first and I’ll admit I was hoping you’d ask me in. I know you didn’t, but that peck on the cheek has me wanting to dance all the way home. I couldn’t do more than tap my feet on tbe passeneger-side floor which is probably why my Uber rating is only sixty-eight, but it was worth it.

I was flying high, you see. You’d launched me up into the sky, where it’s the blue of my shirt. Haha.

You don’t remember that Ford Fiesta?

Well.

That makes me feel… blue.

That was a joke.

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Flavour of a Guest

SONY DSC

(Carl Campbell [CC / Flickr])

I like unexpected guests. The element of surprise gives them a piquant flavour.

This one looks particularly wholesome. Young, female, wearing a chequered shirt that suggests she sees herself as a practical sort of person and heeled her boots that show she isn’t.

There’s something about the empty windowpanes and the paint flaking from the walls that draws them, whether they’re looking for the backdrop for their next Instagram selfie or a place to smoke a joint where they won’t be disturbed.

This one has a bag over her shoulder that looks big enough for a proper camera instead of a phone. She’s walking with purpose, so perhaps that serious shirt fits her better than the heeled boots. Whatever she’s looking for, it isn’t somewhere to sit down for a last puff.

Not that she’d realise it was a last puff until she’d had a couple of lungfuls.

I follow her from derelict room to crumbling staircase, wondering what she’s looking for. They always taste better if I know something about them, and it looks like there’s more to know about this one than most.

We’re in the attic when she spins around to face me. They do that sometimes, when they suddenly realise they’re not alone. Last time one of them did that in the attic, he stumbled off the beams and put a foot through the plaster ceiling. This one shows no such clumsiness, showing perfect balance as she pivots.

She’s facing me with half of her face lit by a blade of sunlight slicing through a hole in the ceiling, shrouding the other half in shadow.

The half of her face that I can see is smiling.

None of them have ever done that before.

Neither have they said, “hello there. I believe you’ve been expecting me.”

She’s right, of course. I’ve been expecting her for so long that I’d forgotten to look for her, not seeing past the next unexpected guest that she appeared to be.

I think of asking her for the time for a last smoke, but that’s more mercy than she will allow me.

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The Portrait Game

ThePortraitGame

(Steve Johnson [CC / Flickr])

If Lady Alexandra had sat for a portrait before, she might not have fallen for it. When the portraitist had offered to cut her price in half if she would allow his student, Mr Bridger, to paint her in place of his exalted self, she might have demurred instead of seeing an opportunity to keep two of the four guineas that Lord Rochester had paid for her portrait.

Being even newer to artists’ studios as she was to marriage, she’d attributed the strange expressions flitting across Mr Bridger’s face to the novice artist’s anxiety at having been trusted with a commission from a client as influential as Lord Rochester. She hadn’t seen the mix of contempt and amusement that she’d have recognised had the canvas not been between them.

It was only when Mr Bridger invited her to view the canvas that she saw the game, but she was far more practised than Mr Bridger. If she were feeling both insulted and foolish, she was sure her face was as composed as if she was leading the ladies into Lord Rochester’s drawing room.

“What’s the meaning of this?” she asked, enunciating every vowel and consonant in a tone that would not cause an eyebrow to twitch in that drawing room.

Lady Alexandra had come a long way from Long Lexie and if the picture of her face on a body clad in nothing but garters and stockings showed that Mr Bridger knew it, there was no reason to acknowledge it.

“Your portrait, Your Ladyship.” Mr Bridger was trying to act as though he was presenting the portrait that had been commissioned, but spoiled the effect with a shrill giggle that brought the portraitist himself in from the adjacent room where he had evidently been waiting.

“That is demonstrably not me. I have never worn black garters in my life and if I had, I would certainly never have made a public exhibit of them.” Lady Alexandra looked the portraitist in the eye as she spoke, as if Long Lexie had never been renowned from Whitechapel to Chelsea for her black garter polka.

“Indeed, Your Ladyship,” said the portraitist with composure that matched her own, revealing himself as an old hand at this game.

“And if I ever were to, I assure you they would grace a far shapelier thigh than that.” If she couldn’t escape the game, she could show that she knew the rules. Whatever Covent Garden girl they’d paid sixpence to sit for the rest of the portrait hadn’t made her living by dancing her polkas on a stage three times a night.

“I beg Your Ladyship to regard the visage of the subject,” said the portraitist. “Mr Bridger has captured an unmistakable likeness – pardon me, I understate my student’s ability – he has captured you in your entirety.” The portraitist paused, letting his innuendo hang in the air. “As I had complete confidence he would. I would never have allowed him to paint Your Ladyship if I did not have complete faith in his ability.”

It was a point that Lady Alexandra had to concede. No one could deny that the face was hers any more than they could deny that the black garters had once belonged to Long Lexie, which made it unlikely that they would be concerned that the body connecting them belonged to someone else.

“I should hope it would be after I’ve spent the last two hours forced to sit so still that I may as well have been sitting in a third-class railway carriage,” said Lady Alexandra. “Or so I am told. I have, of course, never set foot in a third-class railway carriage, let alone sat down in one.”

The portraitist gave her a slight nod, like a fencer to a skilled opponent, but nothing else in his manner acknowledged their duel. “Then we are in agreement. I trust we can settle the commission at ten guineas.”

Lady Alexandra suppressed a wince. She’d have the devil’s own job to prise that sort of money out of Lord Rochester without his wondering what she wanted it for. While he’d been willing to countenance marrying an actress, she didn’t think he was prepared for the knowledge that she’d been Long Lexie before she’d been Perdita or Rosalind.

The portraitist pressed his advantage. “I would quite understand if you fear young Mr Bridger’s work may fall short of the standard required by an eye as discerning as Lord Rochester’s. Of course, if you refuse the commission, we will have to recoup some of our costs but I am sure we will be able to exhibit the painting at some of the salons around London. Perhaps even at the Royal Academy.”

Lady Alexandra refused to give him the satisfaction of glaring at him.

“Of course, my name is unknown,” said Mr Bridger in the shrill voice that made Lady Alexandra want to cuff him into silence, “so it may need to be exhibited for some time before it sells.”

Until someone noticed that the nude in the picture was in fact Lord Rochester’s wife painted as Long Lexie, at which point half of London would be gossiping about it and everyone who wanted to embarrass Lord Rochester would be bidding for it.

Not that Lady Alexandra was going to admit it. “Probably for months if not years. It shows no accomplishment at all.”

That knocked the smirk from Mr Bridger’s lips. He lacked the temperament for this game.

“Nevertheless, I believe it’s worth eight guineas. I shall return before the end of the week.” There was no getting out of it. She’d need to find the money somewhere.

The portraitist made to speak, but Lady Alexandra cut him off. “Eight guineas. Not ten. By the end of the week. Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?” asked the portraitist.

“Perhaps,” said Lady Alexandra. “Or perhaps I’ll visit some old friends while I’m in London and we’ll come back and burn down your studio with you and your painting in it. By the end of the week. Life’s more fun when you dunno what you’re getting, innit?”

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Conflict Resolution with Tea

ConflictResolutionWithTea

(Anna Turley MP [Twitter])

The sound of the television hit Janice as soon as she opened the front door. Nothing unusual about that. Nor was it unusual to find Ron and Quintin on opposite ends of the sofa, staring at the screen. What was unusual was to see Ron and Quintin on the sofa staring raptly at a scene from the House of Commons.

“Are you guys watching the news?” asked Janice. “What’s wrong? Bored of Love Island? Run out of repeats of Embarrassing Bodies on catch up?”

Ron and Quintin grunQuintin an acknowledgement that might have been a greeting without looking away from the screen.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was gesticulating amid a roar of derision. It was impossible to tell whether the derision was coming from his own side, the opposition or both.

Janice slumped into her usual chair.

“Good evening to you too, Janice.” She dropped her voice an octave, which didn’t make her sound much like either Ron or Quintin but was usually close enough that they got the point. “How was your long and tiring day at work? The commute home must have been hell, given that you don’t work five minutes down the road like we do. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Shh,” said Ron.

Janice raised her tone to a falsetto, parodying her own voice. “Why, what considerate flatmates I have. I would love a cup of tea. Thank you so much.”

Neither Ron nor Quintin looked in her direction.

“And I had a most productive day at work sourcing the cyanide with which I intend to poison my flatmates.”

Ron slapped a hand on the arm of the sofa. Janice thought she’d got a reaction out of him until he said, “look at that tosser.”

Ron was glaring at the screen, where the suited Jacob Rees-Mogg sprawled languidly over a Parliamentary green bench.

“Oh, leave him alone,” said Quintin as if Rees-Mogg could hear them. “They’ve been at it for hours. He’s tired.”

“He’s a tosser,” said Ron. “He’s the Leader of the House and he thinks he’s too above it all. Too modern for boring stuff like, like duty. Thinks he’s still waiting for his nanny to bring him his tea, he does.”

“Yes,” said Janice. “Speaking of tea-”

“Modern?” Demanded Quintin. “You’re calling him modern? He’s wearing a three-piece suit, and he’s done all the buttons up. He’s just an old-fashioned sort, doing his best.”

The camera was now on another MP. Janice couldn’t hear what she was saying over Ron and Quintin’s argument, but she looked angry.

“If he was doing his best, he wouldn’t have pushed for Brexit in the first place,” said Ron.

Janice groaned. “Not the B-word.”

Ron didn’t notice. “He’s just a city banker with millions of family money and a pose that he thinks looks clever.”

“All right, I’ll make the tea.” Janice raised her voice, but not loudly enough because Ron was still talking.

“If he can’t sit up, it’s because he’s an invertebrate and invertebrates haven’t got backbones.”

Ron and Quintin had turned away from the television and were facing each other from their sofa cushions.

“Yeah, yeah, very clever,” said Quintin. “You just don’t like him because he’s a Brexiteer.”

“I don’t like him because he’s a tosser. He’s a Brexiteer because he’s a tosser.” Ron looked like he wasn’t sure Quintin had got his point. “He’s a tosser!”

“You need to stop being so against Brexit,” said Quintin. “I know I don’t want a bunch of unelecQuintin bureaucrats in Brussels telling me what shape my bananas should be.”

“When did either of you last eat any fruit?” Janice threw a meaningful look at the empty packet of custard creams half sunk in the gap between their respective cushions. Neither of them noticed

“Oh, don’t tell me you believe a word that bottle-blond moron says. Take one look at everything he promised three years ago. A nice, easy trade agreement with Europe, more money for hospitals and we’d all be in la-di-dah by now.”

“Shangri-La,” Janice tried to correct him, knowing it was pointless.

“Look at him now,” Ron spoke over her. “He’s not even pretending he meant a word of it.”

“Give him a chance,” said Ron, “he only just took over and he’s promising a deal. There’s weeks to go yet. He’s got time.”

“A deal! You’re having a laugh.” Ron’s backside was now several centimetres above the sofa cushions as he leaned toward Quintin. “If he’s going for a deal, what’s he doing in Parliament at all? Why isn’t he in Brussels, keeping his word?”

“Because this is a democracy.” Quintin leaned toward Ron, who say back down as if Quintin was pushing against an invisible forcefield between them. “The people voQuintin to leave the EU so Boris is taking us out of the EU.”

I’m the people as much as anyone is. Nearly half the people voQuintin to stay.” Ron was half standing now and it was Quintin’s turn to lean back.

Janice grabbed the remote control as they both starQuintin talking together. She couldn’t make out what either of them were saying as she flicked through the channels, although she heard the words, ‘Europe’, ‘democracy’, ‘Boris’ several times, the last usually closely followed by ‘tosser’.

It took a few moments to find what she was looking for: a young blonde woman in a bikini, reclining on a sun lounger beside a swimming pool. Janice couldn’t hear what she was saying to the camera, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t know what program this was, but it didn’t look like one that selecQuintin its interviewees for their eloquence.

Janice stood in front of the television and bellowed, “would you like a cup of tea?”

Ron and Quintin fell silent, sat down and looked at her.

“Cool, cheers Jan,” said Ron.

“That’d be great, thanks Jan,” said Quintin.

“All right then.” Janice sidestepped away from the screen.

Both pairs of eyes slid off her to lock on to the blonde.

“Now that’s how slouching’s done,” said Ron. “That Rees-Mogg tosser should take notes.”

“Enough,” said Janice. “Mention him again and you’ll find out whether I was joking about the cyanide.”

Neither Ron nor Quintin took their attention off the screen, or showed any sign of having heard her.

 

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The Cat and the Crosshairs

TheCatAndTheCrossHairs

(Tambako The Jaguar [CC / Flickr])

The sniper in khaki swung his rifle toward the movement, his finger caressing the trigger. He’d seen a human form vanish into the wreckage of a house before he’d been able to make out any detail. He watched the house until the figure re-emerged.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

A few millimetres of movement by one finger was the difference between life and death, but he recognised the figure as a civilian woman, shuffling along with a shopping bag that looked nearly empty.

He took his finger off the trigger. Khakis didn’t shoot without thinking, and they certainly didn’t shoot some poor soul searching for any cans of food that might have been left behind in a shelled-out home.

Shooting civilians was the sort of thing that greens did but then if greens knew what compassion or decency were, they wouldn’t have chosen this town to fight in and he would be looking through a glass window at a well-kept street. It was down to the greens that there was nothing left of the house that stood more than a metre and a half from the ground, and that he was crouching at the bottom half of a window frame that no longer had a top, let alone any glass.

He wished the civilian luck and sent her a silent apology for the destruction, but then it hadn’t been the khakis who picked the battleground.

Something touched the sniper’s leg.

His right hand was off his rifle and on his pistol before he’d looked away from his scope and down. He relaxed at the sight of a black and white cat winding around his ankles. It wasn’t only the people of the town who had lost their homes.

The sniper reached down and the cat pressed its face into his hand. The cat was the first thing he’d seen in this town that wasn’t caked in dust that had once been bricks and concrete. He approved of the cat’s cleanliness. He brushed his own battledress down a couple of times a day and washed it whenever he could. He could never get rid of all the dust, but trying to be as clean as he could was one of the things that made him a khaki soldier.

Not like a green, who wouldn’t care less whether it was his own filth he was covered in or the town’s.

He ran his hand down the clean cat’s flank, feeling every rib under his fingers. Even rats were in short supply in this town.

He put his eye back to his scope and swept his field of view. No one in sight. He ducked out of the window frame, propped the rifle against the wall and pulled a tin of beef stew out of his pack. He wasn’t going to light his stove this far ahead of the khaki front line, but the cat didn’t seem to care. It was miaowing at him as soon as he had the lid off and buried its nose in the stew as soon as the sniper put it down.

The sniper smiled at the cat and stroked its back a couple of times before picking up his rifle for another sweep.

He saw green.

A man in green battledress, assault rifle pointing ahead, walking toward him.

He froze, hoping the green hadn’t seen the movement as he resumed his position.

He hadn’t. the green’s gait was unchanged, eyes darting around above his beard as he completely missed the rifle aimed right at him.

He wouldn’t be alone.

The sniper swept his scope around, marking the rest of the green’s squad patrolling toward him. Close enough together to watch each other’s backs, far enough apart not to make a single target. Just as a khaki squad would do it. He’d marked four of them before he found the one who wore badges of rank. He’d only get one shot before the rest of them took cover and he’d have to run before they outflanked him, so that shot was for the officer.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Then the world exploded.

The sniper ducked behind the wall before he registered what had happened. A mortar bomb had landed between him and the officer, throwing up a curtain of dust and smoke between them as well as the debris that was pattering down on his helmet and battledress.

It was the beginning of a barrage, one bomb after another howling over the sniper and landing in front of him. Which meant they were khaki mortars firing from behind him at the green patrol, and not green mortars firing at him. He’d seen enough mortar barrages to know that whatever the target, some of the bombs always landed short and right now, that short meant on his head.

Time to move.

He shouldered his pack and took a look around, but the cat was long gone. It wouldn’t be the cat’s first mortar barrage either. He scooped up the tin of stew as he ran in the direction of the khaki lines. Best not to leave any sign that he’d been there in case he wanted to use that position again. He ducked for cover after a hundred metres, tipped away the stew and put the tin in his pack.

He took a moment to curse the green officer he’d have killed if that bomb had landed one single second later, and cursed again at having had to leave the best position he’d found for several days.

Now he thought about it, that house would be as good a position for a green as for a khaki. Which gave him an idea. Because he’d first seen it from another position he’d looked at and moved on from because there were too many houses between it and the green lines. The one thing he’d seen clearly from it had been the position he’d just vacated, which would look very attractive to the green patrol. He didn’t think the mortars would persuade them to retreat. Greens were like cockroaches: they kept coming no matter what you did to put them off.

The barrage would keep even a green’s thick head down so he dashed for the position he had in mind while it lasted. The last bomb landed before he made it, but there was still enough dust in the air that they’d have to be within a few metres before they’d see him.

Now he just had to watch and wait. The sniper could watch and wait all day. That was why he was a sniper.

He didn’t have to wait long. The greens must have started moving again as soon as the barrage lifted because the sniper could already see the silhouette of a helmeted man with an assault rifle heading for the exact position he’d left. The greens must have seen its potential before the barrage came down.

The silhouette emerged into three dimensions and climbed through the window frame that the sniper had nearly killed his officer from, covered in so much dust that the sniper wouldn’t have known he was a green if he hadn’t been coming from the green lines. The grey-covered green assumed the mirror image of the position the sniper had taken a few minutes earlier, his rifle levelled in the direction of the khaki lines.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

A movement caught the sniper’s attention, earning the green a moment’s reprieve. The sniper lowered the cross-hairs to see what it was.

The black and white cat was rubbing its head against the green’s boots.

The sniper raised the crosshairs again, anxious to kill the green before he killed the cat for fresh meat. Eating cats was the sort of thing that greens did.

The green earned himself another moment by swinging his pack off his back, placing it in the way of the shot. A bullet would go through a pack, but it might get deflected in the process. Better to wait until he could be sure the shot would count.

The green kept the pack on one shoulder as he reached into it and pulled out a tin. He ripped off the lid and put it down for the cat.

The cat buried its face in the tin while the green stroked its back a couple of times. Then he swung his pack back on and resumed his position, facing the khaki lines.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

The sniper’s finger froze on the trigger. He could still see the cat in the bottom of the scope. The cat looked happy. The green in the cross-hairs was the man who had made the cat happy.

The sniper ducked behind the wall, shouldered his pack and headed for the khaki lines.

Holding his rifle ahead of him, he saw his sleeves were covered in grey dust thrown up by the mortar barrage. He’d have to shake out his jacket before he got too close to his own lines. Otherwise the sentries might not be able to tell the difference between him and a green.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Alliteration at the Bus Stop

AlliterationAtTheBusStop

(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.

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The Man in the Uniform

TheManInTheUniform

(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.”

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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.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification
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