Saturday, 8 June 2013

Magic Water and The Hydrogen Trick

James Lovelock, of the Gaia Hypothesis fame, had, when he worked at NASA, a simple job – to find life in the Universe (other than here on Earth, of course.) More specifically, NASA wanted to know: if they found a planet, how could they tell there was life on it? After all, this planet would probably be very far away and it would be a long time before they would get a closer look. What would be the one clue that would give away that life was present at a distance.

Lovelock soon came up with the answer. Oxygen. If oxygen was in the planet’s atmosphere, then life would have to be present. This is because there is no geological way in which a planet could generate an oxygen atmosphere. It would need life to produce it. Lots of planets might be expected to have carbon dioxide, and life can evolve in such an environment combining carbon dioxide with water, and the energy of sunlight, to create things like sugars, proteins, fats and the like. But in doing so, they would give off oxygen. The presence of oxygen would be the clincher that there was life.

(Ironically, the carbon dioxide-breathing life would eventually so ‘pollute’ its environment with oxygen, that it would die out. But by that time other life that still needed carbon dioxide but could live in the oxygen, as well as life that depended on oxygen, would have evolved.)

The only prerequisite was water. Water is the most amazing chemical compound in the Universe. Now there might be a few other contenders for that title, but there are probably all more complicated chemically than water. Where water wins is with its simplicity. It does so many amazing things, such as dissolve other chemicals, just for one example. Other chemicals can also do this. But most of them are more complicated than water. One molecule of water is made of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of oxygen. The most amazing thing is that, with these components, it should be, at room temperature, a gas. But it isn’t.

This and other properties make it essential for life. Life simply cannot exist without it. It plays a vitally important role in just about every process in all living things – in fact a living creature has been sometimes described as the way a bag of water gets around. And all because it’s a liquid.

Lovelock could have told NASA ‘Look for water,’ but that wouldn’t have been the clincher for the presence of life. A planet might have water but no life. But a planet that has no water can not have life. Absence of water is the clincher for no life. So why is water a liquid at ordinary temperatures?

The reason is something called the Hydrogen Bond. A hydrogen atom is extremely simply, just a heavy particle at the centre, which is also known as the nucleus, called a proton, that is positively charged, and whizzing around the outside a wispy light little particle called the electron. The electron occupies what is known as a partial shell – there is room for more electrons – but no charge at the nucleus to attract them. Despite being so light, an electron has the same amount of charge as a proton, only it is a negative charge. This generates a tremendous amount of attraction between the two particles but, for reasons we can’t go into here, the two virtually never get together. (In fact this whole model is a simplification, but it will do for now.)

Oxygen is rather more complicated but in essence it has several electrons on the outside in an arrangement of partial shells that causes oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms to join together in what is called a covalent bond. This is a true chemical bond and is, unless some other chemical activity takes place, permanent. This type of bond shares all the partial-shell electrons available to form something that looks like a full outer shell. This means that the water molecule cannot form another chemical bond with any other atom or molecule.

That is not the end of the story though. The covalent bond has a shape that is uneven, with the result that, one side, the positively charged protons in the molecule are partially exposed. On the other side, are electrons that are in lone pairs, having nothing to do in the covalent bond, and are negatively charged. This negative side of one water molecule makes it attractive to the exposed positive protons in another. This makes the two molecules tend to stick to each other just a little bit. This is a hydrogen bond. It’s what makes water into a liquid at ordinary temperatures, and therefore is what makes life, everywhere in the Universe possible. This is even though it may last for only one ten-trillionth of a second. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

That isn’t the end of the story of how crucial the hydrogen bond is to life. Hydrogen bonds can occur in other molecules where proton of the hydrogen nucleus is exposed to electrons of another molecule. All living things need to make copies of themselves in order for the species to continue to live. An extremely complicated chemical, called deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, is needed for this. We can make it seem simpler by breaking down how it is made. It includes a sugar, called deoxyribose, a phosphate and four kinds of chemicals called bases. These bases fit on the inside of the molecule between the sugar-phosphate parts. All this is not terribly important for what we are looking at here. What is important is that the molecule is made of two complementary strands twisted together in what’s called a double helix. What is meant by complementary is that they fit together a bit like mirror images of each other. So, split the two strands up and you can make one molecule into two identical molecules.

Just one last thing. It was a lie to say a double helix is a single molecule. It is in fact two separate molecules! What holds them together is hydrogen bonds. Remember the bases that fit inside the sugar-phosphate backbones of the two twisted strands? These bonds are at the ends of the base pairs, holding them together like the teeth of a zip fastener. These bonds unfasten when the DNA unravels to create two copies. Without the hydrogen bond, the double strands of DNA could never hold together nor keep their famous double-helix shape. Nor pass on hereditary information from parent to offspring.

So, without the hydrogen bond, James Lovelock, and you and I, and life in the Universe, would never have existed.

Pretty magical, huh?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Life Coach

Dear Kanga,

Thank you for listening to all my woes in my recent email, and about the flooding. I am particularly intrigued by your suggestion that I get a “life coach,” as they seem to be all the fashion these days. I am not sure whether someone like this would be adequate, however, this far down the line into my chaotic existence. I think I just wasn’t brought up properly.

What I really need is someone who cares, someone who could help, who could batter me into shape or at least set a good example. I blame my parents in the last respect. No-one has ever shown me how to do things properly. 

I think parents are very important for teaching you the basics of life and I am not sure my parents did this. Philip Larkin would surely agree. They did teach me fundamental abstract concepts of etiquette, like honesty, courtesy and politeness, with a little kindness, a little understanding and a lot of beatings. But the really practical stuff, that you, as a boy, you are supposed to learn off your dad, such as plumbing, car maintenance and gardening, I never really picked up for reasons below. As for what I should have learned off a female parent, such as how to put grips in your hair and flirt in a gingham dress, I'd really rather not go into.

Consider my father at DIY. Or tidiness. Or, indeed, anything round the home. He never mastered “the drawer concept” and neither have I. It's a box. You pull it out of a bigger box, and leave it there. If you put anything into the box it is vitally important not to push it back into the bigger box because that way you would lose sight of it and forget it was there. It makes no difference - once you've let go of the thing it magically ceases to be visible and you have to buy a new one.

My father took this to rococo levels. I don't know where he got his training in DIY but a suspicion is that is must have been a precursor of NASA and some kind of zero-g astronaut. I have, quite literally, seen him, when using a tool, then, having completed the immediate task, simply let go of it in mid-air, as if it would float there. Moments later, when he might find he needed the tool again, he would grope at the atmosphere, expecting to find it and looking like he was playing “cat's cradle” with The Invisible Man. He seemed unaware of gravity and that things fell. He, in his youth, must never have dropped anything from his pram (except, possibly, himself, head-first.) Nor, when he suspected that something might have ended up on the floor, did he ever consider that whatever it was might have bounced, and would stare fixedly at the spot where it could have landed initially, willing it to reappear.

He did no better with the lid phenomenon, on jars, paint-tins and bottles, or cupboard doors and their shutting facility. This was most prominent in the kitchen, where my mother would concuss herself so often by walking into them she used to tell Casualty that my father was a wife-beater as it was a more plausible excuse. This would drive her into paroxysms of swearing, cursing, and, frequently, bleeding, which my father never connected with anything to do with himself.

He was no person to be left with tools anyway. Once, when cutting some carpet to fit round a rectangular chimney breast, he simple carved, in a diagonal, from where the cut started to where it should end. When the carpet no longer fitted (nor could the error be corrected, without resorting to a tessellation of little triangles, he announced, “We've made a mistake” to all those in earshot. Who was this “we”? No-one else had dared go near him for hours ever since he picked up the Stanley knife. (Curiously, on this occasion, he never relinquished his grasp on this item until the carpet was unusable in any form besides as a series of unconventional table-mats.)

He was no more adept with other tools. Screwdrivers simply became unshiftably embedded in the thing he was trying to attach something to. Spanners flew from his hands taking all the skin from his knuckles in the process. He couldn’t even hammer in a nail without a house several streets away collapsing. Sometimes, when ambition seized him beyond reason, or some psychotic red mist descended upon him, his zenith of non-achievement was to try and glaze something. He would retrieve his glass-cutter from odd places such as his own turn-ups, a bar of soap or, in one case, a bag of self-raising flour, and buy in large quantities of sheet glass. Hours later, he would still be trying to putty them together like the stain-glass friezes of some cathedral like York Minster or Notre Dame. Some windows were left without any glass at all. While some folk quibble about whether they need double glazing, I can honestly say I grew up in a house that wasn’t, in parts, even single-glazed. It was like this until I finally left the place for good in 2001, when some property developer was conned into thinking that the crumbling pile was not, literally, anything more than a crumbling pile.

Just to mention gardening. My father did show a modest flare for this. He came from The Fens, where his ancestors had had a long history of cultivating swamps. He himself settled for an allotment, where he grew a surprising variety of weeds every year. Hidden amongst them was the odd broad bean or potato. He would bring an example of such home, like some trophy he hunted rather than gathered for mother to cook for Sunday lunch. The only problem was, he would arrive at lunchtime, too late for my mother to cook whatever it was. This would drive her into a paroxysm of anger.

His skill with car maintenance was no less legendary. He would drive a car until it simply stopped and wouldn’t re-start. I myself had been a car driver for years before I realised that oil and petrol do different things and both are necessary. This cost me at least one car. As for water, I thought that was just to wash the screen, which, as my father detested switching on the wipers even when they worked, or even existed, I thought was for wimps. Now you can see why.

My mother had her own specialities she brought to this personal developmental processes. I did learn to cook from her and to this day, given just a few ingredients and a minimal set of kitchenware, can produce something eatable within a reasonable time, though it would not be perhaps cordon-bleu. I mention this however, because it shows I do have some capacity, as yet unexploited in other areas, to organise things. Just so long as they include an onion, a potato and a stock cube. I still have never equalled my mother's ability to produce a three course meal for four people in under twenty minutes, in a pre-end-of-rationing, 1950's style of cuisine. Putting books on a shelf is another challenge. One thing I have discovered for myself is that shelves shouldn’t slope, though I’m not sure how to avoid this.

One thing I did not pick up from my mother, though, was a fondness for baking. She would constantly make egg custards that would then "separate." This would drive her into paroxysms of anger.  She would bake cakes and quite literally insist that no-one move around the house for fear of making them “fall” and ruin them. They would rise beautifully in the oven but almost always came out dish-shaped at the end. This, too, would drive her into paroxysms of anger. She would commandeer any kind of fruit, no matter what its source or suitability, and combine it into crumble. This would usually be followed by a comment along the lines of, "I think it could do with a spot more sugar." From my experience, if she'd nuked some of this stuff with concentrated aspartame it would still have been uneatable. To this day I cannot stand anything baked, with the possible exception of bread. She also had a go at this, taking seven or eight hours to make something she could have got from the local grocer's in five minutes and with less enamel-shattering damage. Some of her loaves were used to patch a hole in the coal shed.

This recalls to me also the tuition in dental care I got from my sires. This can be summarised as ‘none whatsoever.’ My mother would boast, through a fine set of stumps, that she had never been to a dentist. My father's mouth appeared to have been retiled by someone during his stay in the Navy. I thought a “toothbrush” was so-called as it was a dainty implement for cleaning around the taps in the bathroom. Not that any of us did that anyway.

I ended up with two brothers. One showed aptitude, after a fashion, for taking things apart. I never recall him putting them back together again. He once took to bits a Norton classic motorcycle. Even now, forty years later, I find the occasional washer in one of those ornaments-you-keep-things-in, and wonder whence it came. Along with the shirt buttons that my mother collected obsessively, sometimes off the clothing of passers-by in the streets. The last I had heard of this brother was that he had successfully disassembled two aeroplanes and a yacht.

My other brother simply gave up on self-care and joined the Army, then married a woman, from Mediterranean shores, not unlike Hitler but without the moustache. To give you an insight into her steely control of the lad, after a visit to my parents, she upbraided him for having his shirt-collar outside the edge of his pullover. That was years ago and I've not really spoken to him since. I hadn’t really spoken to him before, come to that, but this kind of seemed to put the lid on it. I had just been about to ask him out for a drink. There is no way in this lifetime that she would have let him.

I spoke in an earlier email about the trouble I was having plumbing in the white objects in the kitchen. This has not been helped by someone blocking off one pipe that is nevertheless open at another point, though I need both points, as it were. I simply can’t afford a plumber to come and stick two hoses on a pipe and charge a seventy pound call out fee plus labour while he sits on the worktop and eats his Yorkie bar, plus parts (a jubilee clip at 45 pence plus fetching it, £15.) One of the gizmos I did get to help me with all this has actually been worth while, however. I bought an electric screwdriver.

The main reason for this is because I’ve got such feeble hands and can’t even get the top off a bottle of squash - I do this by sticking the bottle in the door jamb and twisting the bottle. This works but spills a substantial amount of cordial on the floor and I’m still working out how to avoid this. (Another labour-saving device I got for the same reason was a pair of mole-grips. Imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t even figure out how to open them. They’re supposed to work like scissors, right? I was particularly disconcerted to find no instructions on the back of the packet. I wonder why.) But back to the electric screwdriver.

I’ve had so much fun with this - I simply would not have believed it possible with a piece of DIY equipment. I've been screwing away for hours with it, switching it from forward to reverse, twisting the two-position, rubberised non-slip hand-grip between positions. I’ve unscrewed things, tightened things, loosened things or even left them in an intermediate state, just for the hell of it. I’ve screwed things down and - no surprise here – I’ve screwed things up. I mean, I’ve really screwed them up completely. I just can’t stop screwing.

And this seems to have led to my ultimate downfall. I decided to investigate just how well the power sockets in the kitchen were screwed into the wall. Please recall that the kitchen floor is still under several inches of water.

I was uninjured. But I can’t seem to find a torch to check the fuse-box. Or any fuses. Or, come, to that, the fuse-box itself.

I am writing this on my laptop and hoping to use the wi-fi broadband connection to send it before the battery dies and darkness claims dominion over all.
Yes, I do need a life coach, one that can look after me around the clock indefinitely.

But, then, don’t we all? If only my parents had brought me up properly.

    Yours as ever,



The Things We Do For Love

I love my Mum and Dad. I really do.

There are two things I hate, though.

One is self-centredness. Self-absorbed, self-obsessed, selfish. All self, self, self. I can’t stand that.

The other thing I can’t stand is anyone who thinks that they are more important than I am.

My parents must have loved me. It’s not hard for me to say that, when I think of all the things they have done for me – when I stop to consider all of it. It’s just that – just sometimes – it feels a bit like they were doing it for themselves as well. You know? Like they were showing off, sometimes.

Take the school they got me into. I mean I would have been happy going to the one just down the road – well, not happy exactly, but it would have been a shorter way to go to get there and shorter trip getting home at the end of the day when you’re tired. None of that tedious long journey, travelling about. And I would have been with my friends, I suppose. I can’t remember now what friends I had at that age when I moved up a school, but they certainly didn’t go to my new school. I had no friends there and the place was absolutely horrid.

Then there was all the faff of getting there. It was this posh place my Mum and Dad had got me into but it was a long way from home. There was no real way for me to get there. That is, apart from either getting a bus or possibly cycling, and I didn’t have a bike. My parents would probably have got me a bike if I’d wanted one, but that’s the point – I didn’t want one. All that peddling? Not likely! Not for me.

So my Mum used to do the school run in this car she forked out for. I didn’t mind been driven to school, it was quite handy in a way. But when you got there and all the other kids are spilling out of Beamers and Mercs and your Mum drops you off in a Fiat 127, well!… All the other kids are yelling out “Rust-bucket” as your feet hit the pavement and, as if that wasn’t enough, your Mum plants a smacker on you that has all of them howling with laughter at your expense and you spend the rest of the morning trying to rub lipstick off your cheek.

I know she and Dad must have struggled to pay for the car and all the other stuff – the uniform, the sports gear – as if I was ever going to get into sports, for crying out loud – because she took a part-time job at the local laundrette just to help us “get by,” as she put it, while Dad took on week-end shifts at the Co-operative Funeral Directors so that he could chip in a bit extra too. This meant he wasn’t around at week-ends during most of my growing up so he couldn’t take me to football matches and that. Not that I’d be seen dead at a football match but it would have been nice to have been given the option. But, no, my Dad thought he was better off lining his pockets with a few bob. And it’s amazing how many people decide to die just coming up to the week-end, so he was always busy. See what I mean about people being inconsiderate? Selfish sods.

You might think all this hard-work ethic would at least have been applauded by the bunch of chinless wonders I shared a classroom with, seeing as they were all so into the money side of things, but, no, all they could do was have a go at me about it – like it was my fault, which it wasn’t. “Of course, my Daddy drives me to school in the company car – if your father did that you’d have to come in a hearse.” That was what Gerald Latimer said. I wish I’d never told him Dad was in futures and derivatives now. “I suppose he is… if eternal rest’s a future.” Charmless bunch of nerks, always having a go at me, as if it was my fault, which it wasn’t. All because that one time, Dad dropped me off in the works van with the lettering on the side. “How novel – a car with subtitles.” That was Gerald again. Everybody always embarrassing me.

And then they found out that Mum worked at the laundrette when Gerald’s Mum dropped something off there. I don’t even know how she recognised my Mum. I mean, if she’d put on a uniform or worn a disguise I might have got away with it. I think she must have blabbed. That’s the sort of thing she would do, my Mum – “I may work in a laundrette but my little boy goes to St Barnabus’s.” She’d do that sort of thing, my Mum. All because it made her look good. No consideration for me.

And boy did I pay for it. For years there was this joke going around the school, years. “What’s the difference between Jimmy’s Mum and Jimmy’s Dad?” “Oh, I don’t know, what is the difference?” “One stiffens the collars, the other collars the stiff’uns!” I mean you just can’t live something like that down.

Not unless you’ve got something major to hit back with.

It was a little while in coming and, in the meantime, there were various other indignities I had to contend with. Thanks to my parents. Thanks, Mum, thanks, Dad. There were various out-of-school things going on set up by St Barmy’s. They claimed it was all part of giving us a “rounded education.” I’m not quite sure what this was supposed to mean, exactly. To me, “round” is a description for a ball, and if they meant they wanted to teach us a load of balls, I’d say they were doing that already. They also said it was the kind of education that “money just can’t buy,” which was funny because all of these things seemed to cost quite a lot of money, actually. Things like skiing holidays and trips abroad or to see shows in big city theatres or “nature weekends,” whatever the hell they are. Not the sort of stuff I could give a fish’s tit for really, but I couldn’t go anyway because my parents’ cash just didn’t “run to such things,” as they put it. And that was the real problem – not going away when everyone else did. Staying behind and getting the heaps of mockery that can only be provided by the witless twats with more money than brain-cells that I shared lesson-time with. God, it was embarrassing. And it wasn’t my fault.

And then came that fateful day. The day everything changed.

It’s a day I can never forget for reasons I can never remember. I think we were going to be allowed the afternoon off lessons to watch some special thing that was happening on the tele. Some royal wedding or a space-launch or something – anyway something I could safely sleep through, and not worry about the homework I hadn’t done for history or whatever it was I was worrying about. There was always something disturbing my peace of mind at that place. No wonder they called it St. Barmy’s. So I was not best pleased when a teacher pulled me out and said there was some awful news. Give me a break.

What this news turned out to be was that my parents, both of them, had set off in my mother’s car to collect the weekly groceries or whatever, when a 32 tonne truck making a delivery to Ikea had gone out of control and run them over…

“I bet they’re a flat-pack now,” said Gerald Latimer.

It wasn’t totally bad – I did get back to the TV lounge before the thing on tele ended. But this was only after I was asked about a million times was I OK and did I feel alright and that they had sent for a “Grief Counsellor.” I thought that was just as well considering the amount of grief I was getting off them. And they arranged for me to stay in a hotel that evening and I couldn’t help thinking, “You flash gits – anything to show off.”

But that was it really. I stayed in the hotel for a couple of weeks or so before I got an “emergency placement” – I don’t what the emergency was, there was no hurry as far as I was concerned – with the “specialist” foster parents, Jill and Ben – I was never really sure which was which as they both wore chunky sweaters and I thought I was stopping with a pair of lesbians. But the jokes about my real parents all stopped and that was a relief. And there was never any problem sending me on all these outings – which, as I said, I wasn’t that bothered about – but it put a lid on all the “oiks-like-you-can’t-go” derision I’d had to contend with hitherto – and I did get to avoid a lot of classes. And there was a surprising amount of cash that turned up for me from some insurance policy or something my parents had been shelling out for all this time – perhaps that was why they couldn’t afford to keep me properly.

But – biggest joy of all – every Christmas from then on, I got to go on the special orphans’ holiday. This was something that St. Barmy’s arranged for all those kids who had been careless enough to mislay their parents somewhere. It was always some place nice, there weren’t that many of us and we all got on well – perhaps because we had things in common – and they always stuffed us full of food and sweets and we got loads of presents. It was always a really good do. But the biggest part of this biggest joy of all was the sheer, green-with-envy industrial grade resentment I got from my fellow pupils, because none of them, still being en famille, could go. Short of bending over and dropping my pants at them, there was nothing better I could do stick it to them right where it hurt – in their jealous, avaricious pride. That was sweet.

And it wasn’t as if was my fault, because it wasn’t. It was all down to my parents really. All their doing. Thanks, Mum, thanks Dad.

I love my Mum and Dad. I really do.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

For Cats' Sake


Happy New Year everybody!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Info on GSOH and The Moon Can't Wait

The Moon Can't Wait ISBN 978-1-4452-4557-7 (Nicky J Poole)
GSOH ISBN 978-1-4092-0671-2 (Nicky J Poole)
Both available from Lulu.Com

Friday, 19 February 2010

Bilder an einer Ausstellung

“Oh, I like to look at your picture, it reminds me of when I had a chance.”

The words of the song run through my head every night as I settle down to sleep. And I stare at your photo on the night-stand. Perhaps not the best time to have an image of you in my mind. It’s not as if I’m likely to forget your face.

I’m certainly not likely to forget the day you told me about Ronald. Your Ron. You and I had been dating just a little while, just long enough for me to feel we were getting into a routine, that this was something that was long-term, that we were “an item.” I remember all of it, the first meeting, the first date, the first cheliceral kiss. Just as I was getting used to you, you told me that you needed to see “other people.” Other people turned out to be just one person in particular, this Ron character. It took you a little time to come out with the truth. That you were seeing someone else. You’d been “a keeper,” yet somehow I had not kept you. Another lyric comes to mind: “All I’ve got is a photograph of you.”

Did you mean to be so cruel?

I try to distract myself. I know I’ve got to move on. So I put on headphones and flick through my laptop’s collection of music. Best to avoid pop songs, they so often tend to have lyrics about losing someone, wanting them back, remembering. I play safe by going for classical music. No lyrics there. By chance, I select Modest Mussorgsky – Bilder an einer Ausstellung. “Pictures at an Exhibition,” with its lopsided meter and varying time. I’m asleep before I realise the irony.

But what a charmed sleep I have. We’re back together again. We’re laughing and joking, enjoying each other and there’s no Ronald. He’s written out of the pages of my fantasy. It’s just you and me. For a while at least. 
Then, as night-time hours pass, a cloud creeps into my imagination. There he is, there’s Ronald.

It’s like a piece of cinema film being run in a loop through the projector. Frame by frame, I see our time together replayed – the happy part then the sadness, the coming of the depressive epoch of Ronald. But I don’t have to sit through this. I can walk out, like walking out of a movie theatre.

“I’ve had enough of this,” I say. “This is my dream and I am leaving.”

You look hurt, shocked. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, your dream?”

“This is my dream and I am going to wake up.” I rouse and I am gone from the dream-gone-bad and I’m lying awake shaking and sweating and feeling pallid in the dark as I snap on the bedside lamp and see the accusing witness of the alarm clock declaring the smallness of the hour. And, of course, your picture.

Why have I not the wit to remove it? I doze restlessly till morning and it – you – are still there.

The next night is the same. I slip into slumber as a submarine would slip beneath the surface of the ocean, into unconsciousness. The song words, “Dreams of you all through my head,” by Led Zeppelin play over and over like a mantra as theta rhythms take over my brain.

Then it is as if I have come through a tunnel and I am awake once more in the dream of being with you, as we first were. All is happiness, all is fine until, again, suddenly the idyll twists out of shape and Ronald looms.
“This is only a dream,” I tell you, “and I am waking up.”

“What dream, darling? What do you mean?” you ask, dismayed. But I have made my escape and lie awake in the darkness once more. Another night disturbed, reliving pleasure followed by heartache. Morning finds me weary, un-refreshed. Still not able to move on.

And still I do not remove your picture from my bedside. A third night draws on. I will take control, I will dream of us together and that’s how it will be, and Ronald will not appear to corrode the reliving of the dead relationship.

And it all seems to work. At first. We are happier together than ever. All my life should be like this. All my life a dream with you, captured like a postcard, freeze-frame.

Then Ronald appears. I cannot believe it. Surely you can command the imaginings in your own head. I turn on you angrily and swear. “I am going to wake up now, and destroy your photo that has haunted me from my bedside, and I will leave this lost dream and I will move on!”

“Oh no,” you contradict. “You are not going to move on. You are not going to wake up from your dream, because this is not your dream. This is my dream that you are in.”

Did you mean to be so cruel?

“You are in my dream,” you say, “where I am happy and you are not. And you are trapped in it forever.”


Thursday, 3 September 2009

How My Father Saved The World

Today, as we remember the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, I can exclusively reveal a little-known fact. Not only did my father fight in the World War, he started it. And I can prove it. Well, almost.

Arthur was raised by Methodist parents in the rural fens of East Anglia. Many of his other relatives worked the land. I’d say they were farmers, but I’m not sure any of them actually owned any farms – in fact I’m not sure they owned anything, they were so poor – but they did do some farming. He left school at the age of fourteen to deliver milk, 14 hours a day from a ten gallon churn, something I would blanche at even now. Not surprisingly, he must have wondered whether there was a better life. He had one abiding interest – football. His parents’ best offer was that he become a Methodist minister.

He was talent-scouted and offered a contract with Peterborough United, then, as now, known as The Posh. The scout duly went to Arthur’s house to obtain his parents’ agreement. My grandfather literally chased him off the premises. Not only did he regard alcohol as a sin, along with sex, stealing and murder, he evidently thought football was the Devil’s handiwork too. My father was denied the opportunity of playing the game he loved, and for money too. Imagine that, today. Some parents probably would sell their children to a football club.

A few weeks later, World War II broke out. Coincidence? I think not. Two days after that, he enlisted.

That this son of the soil, when answering the call to arms, chose the Royal Navy, bearing in mind few duties took battleships into the heart of East Anglia, surely confirms it – he had planned all this to get as far away from his kin as possible.

He was assigned to HMS Dainty and ended up in the Med. The ship’s company, officers excepted, were designated "HX," which meant service, "for the duration of hostilities plus six months." My father later found out that the crew were almost entirely orphans – no family of any kind. They never received letters from home, they never sent letters – indeed some of them could barely read or write. Even at Christmas, they had no parcels or gifts. I bet my father felt he fitted right in. They must have been a tight-knit group.

Less than two years in, the Dainty was hit by a 1,000 pound bomb and sunk in Tobruk harbour.
Earlier on, they called in at Malta, where, to my father’s amazement, left-overs from the ship’s mess were sold as food to the locals. It’s not they were inescapably poor, it’s just that they gave all their money to the Church, who in turn used it buy gold statues for the places of worship. I think my father’s view of religion must have become even more jaundiced at that point.
I once asked him if he was terrified at the state the world was in at the time and what the future threatened. He said, "No, no. It was all great fun, really exciting. I was in charge of the ship’s launch, taking things ship-to-shore and back. I was seeing parts of the world I barely knew existed." It can’t all have been fun though. Not all of his friends came back. But I can see how a lot of it was.

The highlight of every day was the rum ration, served at seven bells, or eleven in the morning to you and me. This was 50% alcohol watered down two to one, which still makes it a heck of sight stronger than a Bacardi Breezer. Perhaps this is where the expression, "to knock seven bells out of someone," comes from. His poor dad must have been spinning in his pulpit. As if this was not enough, there was shore leave and, on one particular occasion, the following occurred. A rating, climbing back on board from a night ashore, inexplicably slipped and cut his head open. The ship’s surgeon was summoned, a new man, unversed in the ways of sailors, who brought his medical kit with all its contingency items to put a bandage around the skull of the injured crewman. When the medical officer went to retrieve his bag, a large bottle of surgical spirit had vanished. He daren’t say anything as he would have been in as much trouble as whoever had appropriated it.

What does surprise me is that not only were this semi-soused lot allowed near guns, and by that I mean artillery, they were actually got to fire them at things from time to time. And on one occasion, they managed to hit a submarine, which had unwisely taken a sojourn on the surface. Fortunately, the Uebi Scebelli was Italian, and on the other team. This was the 29th June, 1940, and is where my father’s world-saving activities really began.

As my dad watched the damaged submarine before it was scuttled, he noticed that something in a small case, about the size of a portable typewriter, was concealed in a kit-bag and brought on board the Dainty in some secrecy. It later transpired that this was a copy of Enigma, the Nazi coding machine used by all the Axis forces. Being able to break secret messages so that you always know what your enemy is about to do is a tremendous advantage to you and is one very significant reason The Allies eventually won the war.

My father therefore feels, with some pride, that he played a pivotal part in this victory over the evil of fascism. I haven’t the heart to tell him that the British already had copies of the Enigma machine from even before the war. The Polish Cipher Bureau, which for years had been monitoring German radio traffic, had deduced from scratch how the Enigma was built and had made their own copies. It was capturing copies of the code-books which gave the daily settings for all Enigmas that mattered most after that. When Poland was threatened with invasion, in August 1939, they sent a copy of the machine to London for the British to use. Code-breaking was carried out at Bletchley Park throughout the war and was indeed instrumental in assuring victory, especially during Operation Overlord, the liberation of western Europe.

But my father was not to know that. He played his part on the chessboard of history as much as anybody. What he did was important and, under slightly different circumstances, could have been monumental.

So when you see all around you as in a mess, don’t think there is nothing you can do. Some action of yours might just help save the world.

After all, my dad did.

The End

Monday, 20 July 2009

Going Back (The Moon Can’t Wait)

Friday 1200 Zulu

“We’ve lost contact with South Pole Base.”

This was big news. I could only speculate why Mission Director Lavrov was telling me first – if I was the first.
“Who’s this ‘we’?”

“Both us and Mission Control on Earth. All radio and data contact, telemetry, complete works became silent at 0900 Zulu, Friday.”

“The Sat links?”

“Both Sat links to us and direct feeds to Earth. Whole show went off at once. No warning, no prior emergency, nothing. Just like somebody pulled plug on entire base.”

“What does Mission Control say?”

“Somebody’s got to get ass down there and find out what’s happened.” I don’t know why, but I always find it amusing when Russians try to use American slang. Especially when agitated. “Assuming worst, till we know better.”

“When do we go?”

“We can’t prep a sub-orbital flight in under four weeks – ”

“Four weeks?” I was surprised. “Why the delay?”

“The Selena is undergoing routine overhaul and maintenance. Right now she’s lying around in Engineering Bay in about three thousand pieces.”

“Why is the car always in the shop just when you need it?” I said. Perhaps my levity was out of place. Certainly, Lavrov scowled at me.

“So we are sending team in one of the Marathons,” he added, somehow coping with his bad mood – at least he was regaining his fluency in English – “along with trailer carrying supplies for every kind of eventuality. That’s another reason for going by lunar surface route – bigger load.”

“But the surface trip from here to South Base is over five thousand kilometres – and that’s not counting the detours around craters. Especially as you get nearer – it’s, what?  –– like a thousand kilometres of Himalayas.”

“It’s been done before – and that was before rougher sections were bulldozed to make causeways and cuttings,” said Lavrov. “About the same as crossing the Sahara, end to end.” His expression had not improved any, so it still didn’t sound like some kind of picnic he was suggesting. “You can average 40 kilometres an hour which means 140 hours to get there – about six Earth days. Which is just as well as it’s only seven Earth days till Lunar night on the Earth side.”

“So who’s going on this jolly jaunt?” I asked. It was a safe bet I already knew one person who would be going. John Patterson. Me.

“Jim Sellars, Dr Li, Françoise Lagrange from medical and Ajali Ndege. Then there are two newcomers. Dr Ahmed Zubaydi and his assistant, Ibrahim Rashid.”

Newcomers indeed – I recognised their names from a recent passenger manifest, but knew nothing else.

“Who are they?”

“They came in on the last trip from South Base before the Selena went for her overhaul.”

“What are their specialities?”

“Apart from having visited South Base and seen how it was just days ago?” Lavrov picked up and glanced at a slim folder for several seconds like he had never read it before. “Dr Zubaydi was expert in geological survey – oil prospecting, I gather – before he joined our team.” A pause. “Rashid is – ah – his right-hand man… been with him for years. Deputy-Directory Kennedy at South will have done a more thorough debriefing, seeing as they were joining his staff. They are visiting North just to get to know whole operation.”

“And who else?”

“And your good self, of course.” He still didn’t stop scowling.

“Why just seven of us?”

His scowl worsened, if that were possible. “If nothing serious has happened, there will be plenty of people there who can take care of themselves.”

“And if it is serious?”

“You won’t need more than seven of you.”

He filled me in on a few other details for my own speciality. “One last thing,” Lavrov added. “Keep in touch with us here at North Pole Base, every six hours. You know the protocol.”

I nodded. I knew the protocol. “Anything else?”

“Get back in one piece.”

I’d kind of planned that already.

Friday 1600 Zulu

Let me introduce you to a Marathon. It’s one hell of a bit of kit. It has twelve wheels, six in the forward tractor unit and six in the so-called trailer which was attached to the tractor by a fully sealed gimballed mid-section, like a flexible bus, although it could be jettisoned in an emergency, such as sliding down a crater wall and the like. It was unfair to call it a trailer, as drive went to all of its six wheels, just like the forward unit, which in turn wasn’t really a tractor in that it didn’t pull anything. In fact, each wheel has its own drive motor which could be cross-linked to any other wheel in case any motor failed. It could carry up to sixteen people, suitably equipped, though, on this occasion the rear unit would be full of stores with no passenger space. The whole thing weighed twelve thousand kilos on Earth, or just two thousand on the Moon. All of them were nick-named the “recreational vehicle” or “RV” by everyone that used them, both at North Pole Base where I normally spent my time, and at South Pole Base. There were five on the Moon in all with at least two stationed at each base and the fifth as a kind of spare. Each one cost one point eight billion dollars. Some RV.

The reason for always having at least two at each base was for contingency. Contingency and redundancy. When you live on the Moon you never adopt the mode of thought, “What if something goes wrong?” It’s always: “When things go wrong, I can do so-and-so.” There’s always a back-up, a spare, of everything from a spanner to a spacesuit. The only exceptions at all were the Selenas – the sub-orbital spacecraft – and the Atlases, the Earth-Moon shuttle/cargo craft – it simply wasn’t feasible to have duplicates of these hugely expensive transporters at both bases – we shared one a piece at each base with at least one either on Earth and one en route – four in all – and this was thought sufficient. That had worked out well, I couldn’t help thinking, considering the current circumstances, but then no-one had anticipated a whole base simply shutting down like a blown-out candle. As for our Selena, giving it regular and thorough maintenance was our way of covering our asses. That had worked out well, too, again given the same considerations. I can be quite cynical when I put my mind to it.
Considering what was about to happen, I was probably justified.

This is the opening of my new novella which came out today, available from

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Black and White

(Somebody at risk of harm - but to themselves or somebody else?)

It’s black and everywhere is white.

Or is it white and everywhere is black?

I can’t figure it out. It’s black everywhere and it’s white everywhere.

I look up and it’s black. I look in the distance and it’s dark, nothing is clear, but white specks are floating into my vision. They scurry, form shapes, re-form and disappear, only to be replaced by more phantom figures. I look down and it’s white everywhere. My feet stumble in the white.

The white around my feet crumbles and swallows my feet as I try to move. I breathe out and my breath clouds, mixing with the swirling phantoms. It is snowing and it’s very late at night and I don’t know where I am going. What am I doing? What am I about to do?

What have I just done?

Was it right? These things are never black and white.

This is one of my clearest memories of being at North Riding University. The winters were always severe. Snowfalls would sometimes cut off the new campus from the rest of the country, especially, it seemed, at week-ends. Menial staff like cleaners and porters would be trapped, and have to sleep in the main refectory or the chapel till Monday. On this winter evening the snow is more hideous than ever. It is so cold and ice-sharp, it is dry and doesn’t even have the decency to melt on your exposed flesh of your face, till your skin burns and you cannot feel the cold anymore. It dances around me furiously, piling into my eyes as it gathers, onslaught upon onslaught from an unseen black canopy over head.

The centre of campus, the piazza, is totally deserted. Lamps burn pointlessly overhead, illuminating a dazzling, deserted tableau.

I stumble on.

Almost miraculously a figure appears in the distance. Small in stature yet definitely male, he makes his way directly towards me through the driving snow. His hands are thrust deep into the pockets of a duffel coat, though the hood is down and his head is bare in the outrageous blizzard. I can see his close-cropped red hair – coupé en brosse as the French would say, and red stubble of beard – it is the only colour in this monochrome scene.

"Are you Malcolm?" he says, almost conversationally.

"Malc," I nod, correcting. "Call me Malc."

"My name’s Chris. We spoke earlier. Have you taken any pills?" He has the politeness to grin slightly as he asks.

"I can’t remember," I mumble. "I’ve been out in this – " I shrug, indicating the whirling ice-flakes. "It’s been so long," I add after a pause. "Yet, I feel so… hot."
"Are you feeling dizzy?"

"Dizzy? No… no, I don’t think so," I lie. I’ve taken some tranqs, but that’s understandable.
"It’s been five minutes since you called the Nightline office. You said you hadn’t taken anything then. Just that you thought you were going to. That’s why I came out to meet you." He almost laughed. "Lovely night for a walk, eh?"

"No, not dizzy. Just hot. Here," I tugged at the clothing at my neck, "let me take my scarf off."

Nightline was a little organisation run by the Students’ Union. It was there to help member students through the night when ever they had problems, like an essay they couldn’t finish for a nine o’clock deadline, or an impossible finals exam coming up – that would be usually in the summer term, of course, though some schools had mid-year class tests. Also, other problems, like money worries, late grant checks back then, difficulties with parents, fear you were on the wrong course, love affairs running less than smoothly – in fact anything that could disturb the student psyche, a student-based version of The Samaritans. They were said to be particularly keen on helping undergraduates talk through their sexual orientation – nothing like becoming queer to excite the would-be psychotherapeutic volunteers that would stay up all night once or twice a term to run the Nightline service, from the VP-Internal’s office in the Union. Their busiest time, and type of call, though, was always during exams, or the suicide season, as it was known.

I flapped inanely at my coat, trying to find a pocket. "Could you take this?" I said at last, handing him the scarf. I am a personification of confusion.


Despite his casual, amiable manner, I knew he was studying me closely.

"There is something else," I said. "My girlfriend."

"What about her?"

"I think I may have… harmed her."

"Harmed? In what way?" said Chris.

"A bad way."

He remained calm, but it was with a hint of effort, of self-control. "Where is she?"

I told him the room address in the hall of residence at the east end of the campus. Sure enough, his demeanour descended from controlled calm to the edge of agitation. The snow dramatically raised its dervish dance around us as we headed out into the frigid night.

We get to Marion Harding’s room and the door is ajar. We step inside and Marion is sprawled in an ugly fashion on the floor of the cramped bed-sit room. I am all confusion and unable to explain what might have happened. Chris is bent over the body as police from the North Yorkshire Constabulary arrive. I am suddenly the model of clarity and perception. "He did it!" I exclaim. "I saw him strangling her. He’s the one I called you about. Look – her scarf is hanging from his pocket!"

There, on the nightstand, is a sad little epitaph to the recently deceased. Marion’s diary, open at today’s page and, in her handwriting, the note: "Meet Chris tonight." It is there, in black and white.

When I graduated from NRU in Business Studies, it was an easy step to take a job in London, just after the Big Bang of deregulation on the stock market and financial institutions. It was easy to make a killing here too. I dutifully became obscenely wealthy and, as the Eighties segued into the Nineties and the bubble subsided, I quietly stepped back from coke-fuelled trading in the City to semi-retirement in my Docklands flat. The only thing I really lacked was a partner, a girl by my side. But the only woman I had ever loved had turned me down back in my college days because she was already seeing a sociology major called Chris, who, amongst his many good works, volunteered for the Nightline service at NRU. The only woman I ever loved was Marion Harding. I found out, one winter’s evening when my heart could bare the pain of rejection no more, when Chris was on duty at Nightline. I gave her one final chance to reject him in favour of me. She failed to do so and I took the only course of action I could see open to me. If I could not have her, then nobody would. It was a choice as clear as between night and day. Framing Chris was an exquisite bonus. He had the means, opportunity and possible motive – an arranged meeting to break up with him and go out with me, perhaps. He was sentenced to life. Or as good as, in this penal system.

Now I sit in my apartment, staring at the ancient brick architecture and genuine maple floor and gaze blankly across the river, and I wonder what it has all been about. Light floods the open plan room but not my dark secret. How life would have been different with Marion at my side, when there is a knock at the door. Callers are unusual, but I answer just the same without hesitation.

A figure stands there, bent and with lined face. "Remember me?" he says.

No, I do not, and say so. I expect an explanation. There is something vaguely familiar about the close-cropped red hair. He hits me suddenly with something so hard, all I see is a flash of light. Though I know I must be falling, it is as if the floor pivots up to meet me in the back. I am dazed and confused and can find no breath.

"Perhaps you remember this," says the red-haired figure now kneeling on my chest. "This scarf is just like Marion’s. The one you planted on me all those years ago. The one you strangled her with and used to send me to prison for life!"

He is looping the scarf around my neck. I can hardly breathe as it is with his full weight upon my chest, and the blow to the face moments earlier – what did he hit me with? There is blood in my mouth and I feel terribly hot.

"They say life should mean life," he says – I’ve not a clue what he’s on about – "in your case, it will do!"

The scarf slithers around my throat and he tugs it tighter still. I can get no air and my lungs are exploding. At last, I suddenly realise who he is and why is here and what he wants.

Just as everything begins to go black.

Maybe it is what I want too.

The end.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


(Space colonists fear only one thing)

The stars jabbed out of the blackness of infinity from every direction. They were above and, as above, so below. They were to port as to starboard and ahead as aft. They freckled the face of the endless night and tried to pierce the eyes of the lovers, but the lovers only had eyes for each other.

Albion was looking into Roxette’s eyes with keen adoration as she was telling him the news of the forthcoming grand festival.

"So we are all to congregate in the hanger decks and try to make it as much of a celebration as possible."

"What? Isn’t that a bit… well, tacky, under the circumstances?"

"Don’t you see what my father is trying to do?" said Roxette. "It’s to boost morale after everything that’s happened."

The stars swam dizzyingly all around them outside the Observer Dome as the great craft rotated. It was the only sky that Albion and Roxette had ever seen throughout their lives.

"This was your father’s idea?" said Albion.

"Well – now that the crew of the Argo are joining us on the Prospero for the rest of the mission, he felt as captain that he had to make their arrival into some of occasion. Don’t worry – he’s going to say something about the other crews that… were lost. But he thought if that was all he did everyone would be miserable for another couple of light-years and he didn’t want that. So – we’re having a big bash."

"I should hope he does say something," said Albion. "What happened was tragic."

"I know," said Roxette. "But at least we know we are safe on the Prospero. Our cargo hold door has been double-tested and there’s no flaw. And we found out that the Argo’s door was faulty before it blew, so we do have something to celebrate."

Albion was coming round to Roxette’s view, but he still remained to be completely convinced. "A pity no-one found out before we lost the other two ships," he murmured.

"It’s a pity there was a design fault at all! Just think how lucky we are that, as flagship, the Prospero is built differently."

"That’s true," he shrugged, "otherwise we would have had it. We’re only just reaching half-way."

"My grandfather told me of the festivities they had on Earth when the fleet was launched. I don’t know how they could they have made such a huge mistake."

"We don’t know what Earth was like, come to that. Neither of us have ever been there."

"I wonder what the new world will be like," said Roxette. "That will be something to celebrate for sure."

"Just so long as we get there," said Albion.

"Oh, stop being such a junk-dump!" she said.

The small fleet of four huge spacecraft had set off from the closeting comfort of Earth orbit for their exoplanetary destination two generations ago, the fusion-powered ion drive engines thrusting the ships at a steady acceleration, such that inside the craft, the feeling was exactly like the gravitational pull on the surface of their home planet. Within a year, they were close to the speed of light, though the convoluted warping of space and time, as described by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, meant that this velocity was only approached but never reached. The one thing that was simple to understand: they would never be going back. Families set out on that stupendous journey, of such stupendous duration, that the parents would age and die, while children would be born and grow to take their place. At least, that had been the mission plan. Half way through their transit to their new home, a second Earth orbiting around the star Tau Ceti, the ships were to turn about face – no problem in the lifeless vacuum of space – and fire their engines forward as brakes, to bring them to a timely halt at their destination.

But not all had gone to plan. Sealed inside the enormous containers, ever to be held with means neither of ingress or egress to the airless void save for inside a full, hard-pressured spacesuit, the fecundity of the travellers had fallen well below expectation. A full complement of passengers was 500, expected to be reached as journey’s end approached. However, not one ship held even a hundred as mid-point neared. Then disaster struck.

The first ship to fall victim was the Mexico. The demise was as sudden as unexpected. A catastrophic failure of the hull, and the one thing feared by any who ever ventured into the void of space befell all on board, the loss of life-giving air to the unfillable vacuum of space. With no time to don pressure suits, death was swift. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim as the nitrogen in the tissues boiled through the skin, shutting him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the process, were the incidents of half a minute.

At first the survivors on the other three ships, the Prospero, the Argo and the Calypso, thought that the Mexico had been prey to the most extravagant bad luck, a one-in-a-million chance encounter with a primordial chunk of space débris. Then barely had the shock and the grief at the loss begun to subside when the Calypso’s automatic monitoring systems detected that its hull too had been compromised, only this time without the explosive, balloon-like bursting that had laid waste to the Mexico. This time the true fault was identified – the massive hatch to the cargo bay, that would have been opened to unload the myriad items required to colonise and populate a new world, was found to be terminally compromised about its edge, its seal ruptured. Too late – the loss of air so rapid, that all had perished before they could evacuate in shuttle craft or in emergency pressure suits to the two vessels gliding alongside.

Now forewarned, the crew of the Argo, identical in every way to its two sister ships, checked and eventually yet with haste identified a profound error in the construction of its own cargo bay door. Only the Prospero, with a slightly more elaborate and different design, offered refuge. The Argo was abandoned, and all of the remaining colonists joined together on the one sound craft for the final years of their fated journey.

"I presume you will be accompanied by Albion at tonight’s festival?" said Captain Prospero. The ship he commanded was named after his family.

Roxette fidgeted uncomfortably. "Are you sure this festival is the right thing to do, dad? I mean, some people might think it’s a bit in bad taste. Do we all have to go?"

The Captain faced his daughter and studied her gravely. "Yes, everyone. In all the time since I took over as commander of this mission from my father, I have never instructed passengers of this vessel in a more important duty."

"But it seems disrespectful to the dead," said Roxette.

"It is in honour of the dead that we celebrate. In that, and a restatement of the mission. You do understand?"

Roxette Prospero looked levelly at her father. "I suppose so. It’s not as if we have any option."

Captain Prospero frowned. "What do you mean? I’m not going to force you to attend if you would really prefer not to. But it would seem strange to the rest of the crew if my daughter were not there."

"No, dad. I meant: it’s not like we can turn round and get back to Earth. We have to go on."

"Life has to go on. Our life and our future lie ahead of us – something which is true for anyone. I was wondering – have you and Albion ever considered the idea of getting married?"


"One day you may take over this command. One day when I am too old. It would be beneficent to yourself if you had someone, such as I have your mother, by your side to share in the burden of command, Roxette. Someone such as Albion, for example."

"Oh, dad! Is our whole future planned out for us?"

"The future of all of us," said Captain Prospero, "is in the stars. It has always been so."

"But it is not set, is it, dad? We still do not know what the future is."

Prospero knelt down at his daughter’s side. "My darling daughter, I am determined to make the festival as exciting an occasion as possible. There will be no shortage of stores from which to prepare a banquet. There will be actors playing skits, dancers, comedians, musicians. All these and security inside our spaceship home. Only outside will be the limitless vacuum. But perhaps you can help me."

"In what way?"

"The hangars, where the shuttle craft for planet-fall lie sleeping, offer plenty of room for revelry but are joyless in their appearance. I am thinking of decorating them, each with its own colour-scheme. One is to be blue, lit with blue lights, to suggest the oceans we long to see, the next exotically in purple, the next green, with green illumination to look like inside a jungle, the fourth orange, the fifth white and the sixth violet."

"It sounds a bit gaudy," said Roxette. " Are you sure you’ve an eye for this sort of thing?"

"Well, exactly," he allowed a modest grin. "And I’m sure it’s something that runs in the family. So I was wondering – maybe you could suggest the colour scheme for the last hangar."

Roxette reflected. "How about… black?"


"Yes. Black velvet, like a dreamless sleep."

"That sounds a little… moody."

"No – it will be romantic. Black with red lights, a passionate scarlet, a deep blood colour. So that people who want to get close can do so in an intimate setting, not in a bright glare. That is what you want, isn’t it?"

Captain Prospero was dubious. "Perhaps we could have a big digital clock at one end, with a red display, counting off the time to our arrival at our new home."

"Yes," said Roxette. "After all, you do want us to look forward to raising our children there."

"Perhaps – who knows? – tonight would be good time to announce a forthcoming marriage?"

Roxette regarded her father strangely. "Perhaps."

Everyone was to wear fancy-dress, costumes of their own making. The anticipation that would build in such preparation would heighten the excitement, Prospero thought. No-one was to remain at duties. Prospero alone would man the bridge, watching the festivities from the cameras mounted on the decks.

"All seems to be going well," Albion said to Roxette.

"Things have livened up since the music and dancing began," she replied.

"And since your father suspended restrictions on alcohol. I’ve never seen so much booze. Amazing how quickly people forget."

"Don’t be harsh," said Roxette. "It helps melt their hearts."

He turned to her. "Lucky we don’t need it."

From the bridge, Prospero watched, content that his instructions for a joyful occasion were going to plan. There were to be generous prizes for the most inventive costumes awarded at the height of the evening. It was then that he spotted something on the blue hangar’s monitor that appalled him. Some idiot had thought it would be amusing to come dressed in a pressure suit, the sort that would be worn in an emergency evacuation of a stricken craft. The very suit the kind of which the poor souls of the Mexico and the Calypso had been so grievously unable to don before they were overcome.

Furiously, Prospero hurried down to the blue hangar, but the callous fool in the suit had already left for the orange hangar.

"Master-At-Arms?" Prospero addressed a man dressed as a cowboy.


"I know you’re not on duty but – somebody has come in a really offensive costume. We need to remove him before he upsets everyone."

"Where is he?"

"There he goes – into the next hangar!"

Prospero called his master-at-arms, though not dressed for duty, to come with him to catch the offensive culprit. The figure passed between other party-goers, all of them falling silent. Captain Prospero and the Master-At-Arms followed but could not catch him as he slipped between the crowds from one hangar to the next. At last, he arrived at the final hangar, with its black fabrics and scarlet illumination. Albion and Roxette were there, hand in hand, watching on.

Prospero strode to the middle of the deck. "Who is that idiot who has come here dressed so distastefully?"

The figure turned slowly to face Prospero. The gold-tinted visor was drawn down on the face-plate of the helmet, the thin film of metal hiding the visage within.

"Master-At-Arms, grab that man."

The Master-At-Arms however, hesitated.

Prospero turned on him. "Unmask that vile interloper!"

"Sir, I…" the master stammered and fell silent.

"Very well," said Prospero, "I shall do it myself!"

He reached forward and snapped back the all-concealing visor.

Instead of someone he recognised, he saw a face, contorted and twisted in a rhesus of agony, fluids bubbling from the bulging eyes, blood sweating from skin and oozing from the nose and mouth, as one dying in the final stage of catastrophic decompression in the vacuum of space.

Prospero fell back, a vaporous shriek wretched out of him as all air was torn from his lungs. He collapsed to the black-clothed deck, dead. Roxette screamed, and threw her arms round Albion, his name dying on her lips. He grabbed at her before he too succumbed. Within scarce a beat, those nearest likewise crumpled as the atmosphere ceased to exist, throats ripping, eyes exploding. On it went like a wave through the whole flux of people inside the spacecraft, and the digital clock stopped and its glowing ember lights went out. And now was acknowledged the presence of the vacuum. It had come like a thief in the night. And darkness and decay and the vacuum held illimitable dominion over all.

The end.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Changing Channels

So? – what have you changed for the New Year?
(Doing some more writing for a start! – specially for Lynne)

"Hello!? Anybody about?"

Mike stepped inside the apartment, and listened. He could have sworn he’d heard a faint noise, muffled, distant, but now it appeared to have stopped. "That fridge’s getting noisy. I suppose we’ll need a new one soon."

He immediately started hunting for the remote for the TV. As usual, like all remote controls, it had attempted to secrete itself under a cushion. He was wise to its ways, however, retrieved it, aimed the priceless gadget at the set and pressed ‘On.’

He was waiting patiently for signs of life when the hallway door opened. "Good grief! Spencie! I didn’t know were home. Why didn’t you answer when I called out?"

"Called out?" Spencie looked startled, and her eyes darted round the room. "I didn’t… didn’t hear you."

"How come you’re not at the office?"

"Took the afternoon off. Things to do. Anyway, how come you’re home so early?"

"The international’s on live. England against Belarus. The kick-off’s four o’clock, so I thought I’d sneak out of work and catch it. I didn’t expect you’d be in for dinner till it was nearly over. Are you alright?"

"Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?"

"You seem a bit feverish."

"Do I?" She put a hand to her cheek, her fingers fidgeting upwards to cover her eyes. "I’ve just been doing a spot of gardening. Potting some flowers. In the bedroom. Why don’t you come and see?"

"That’s alright," Mike laughed, in the way that she had once found so appealing. "I wondered if you had a secret lover in there!" He moved closer to her and put his forehead against hers. "Hey, toots," he said, mock-Bogart, "I thought I was all the man you could handle."

She seemed to relax into his arms. "Why don’t you come into the bedroom anyway, and let me…" she brushed his cheek with her mouth, "… check?"

"Well, swee’heart… – what is wrong with this damn remote?" He suddenly snapped his attention to the still-silent television. "The game will have started! I think we’re going to have to get a new TV. And a new fridge too. I’m sure I could hear the thing buzzing when I came in."

She stared at him coldly. "The batteries have probably gone."

"Again?" he said, exasperated. "They’re always packing up. I can’t change channels on this stupid TV without the zapper." He snapped the cover off the back of the control and again he looked puzzled. "The batteries really have gone! There aren’t even any in here."

Spencie licked her lip and took his hand. "Maybe you don’t need to watch football after all."

Mike looked back at her, adoringly. "Spencie. Darling… It’s a qualifier – I’ve got to watch it. Have we any spare batteries?"

She pivoted on her heel and stamped off up the hallway to the bedroom. She returned, jackboot, and threw a pair of Energizer Extra Power at him. "I shall get a bunch of spares tomorrow," she announced, as if making a manifesto commitment, then retreated back to the bedroom, closing the door sharply.

It wasn’t until half time, with the score still nil-nil, that he wondered what she was doing in there.

There was an atmosphere in the apartment after that. Christmas was coming. To Spencie, this meant: presents, wrapping paper and decorations. To Mike, it meant a crowded fixture list in the Premier League. Negotiations were entered into, and a rapprochement was achieved – Mike would go shopping anywhere Spencie wished as long as this didn’t coincide with Manchester United playing at home. He would not attend away matches as long as highlights were shown.

It came to the Saturday before Christmas. Both had had a good day – a pile of purchases lay on the throw-rug before the couch, and Mike was secretly relieved to have an excuse not to travel to all the way to Fratton Park.

And so they ended up on the couch, Match of the Day seemingly sinking into the background as the two of them demolished a bottle of Pinot grigio. Even the highlights had lost relevance as Mike had already accidentally seen the results in a branch of Currys.

"I was wondering," said Spencie in her curiously circuitous way, "whether we might be thinking of an early night."

Mike looked at her and seemed on the edge of a decision. "And Carrick keeps feeding Ronaldo down the channels," the commentator was saying, "but the Portsmouth defence is holding firm."

"Well, change it," Mike yelled at the TV, "cross to the other wing!"

Mike wondered later at what point in the evening Spencie had gone to bed.

It was already dark on New Year’s Eve when Mike let himself into the apartment, with his now customary sheepishness. Spencie had become so volatile these days, so unpredictable, he had to be ready for anything. And, on this occasion, he felt pretty sure that he was.

Spencie confronted him in the lounge. "I was wondering when – or if – you’d turn up. Thought perhaps you had gone to see your precious United."

"Don’t be daft, pet – they don’t play on New Year’s Eve."

"I sometimes think you love Man United more than you love me."

Under his breath, he muttered, "I sometimes think I love Man City more than I love you."

"What!?" she bellowed.

"I said Man United aren’t as pretty as you."

"How can I be compared with a football team on the basis of who’s prettier!?

"Come on, Aspen," – he knew she hated it when he used her formal name – "change the record: ‘you’d rather watch a game than make love.’ When have I ever said that?"

Spencie seemed to coil like a serpent and hissed, "Do you know what is the one time each year we don’t make love?"

"When your mother visits?"

"No," she retorted, triumphant, "when it’s the football season. Well, not any more!" She strode out of the room and returned a moment later with a stranger, another woman, rather plain and shapeless in Mike’s view, with a blunt bob haircut. "Meet Geraldine – my new lesbian lover! So whatever plans you had for this New Year, I think you might have to change them!"

Spencie had imagined her announcement would have the lurid impact of a bomb in a paint factory. But it somehow landed curiously flat.

"I’m not so sure about that," he said, and fetched a male stranger from the entrance. "Meet Gerald, my new best mate. I just came back to tell you – we’re going down Canal Street for the evening to discuss a flat back four and two holding players over a few glasses of Bailey’s."

The End

Author’s note: several people were kind enough to offer constructive criticism of this piece and, particularly, whether the use of the word ‘Lesbian’ was necessary near the end. I myself agonised over this as I am all in favour of letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions and at no other point is gender orientation mentioned explicitly (why should it be?) I came very close to removing the word, but changed my mind, for the following reasons. Firstly, she is not just adopting a new partner, but making (apparently) a major life-style choice - the main interpretation of the piece's title, Changing Channels - as a consequence of her recent relationship. Secondly, she wants to emphasise this point specifically to annoy and prick the conscience of her former partner. Finally, and more trivially, she is probably lying! – she has in all likelihood, neither got a new partner nor adopted a new lifestyle – her outburst is motivated as an attack on her old partner. His response, however, is somewhat different…

Monday, 19 January 2009

Small Sacrifices

This story orignally appeared in Chorley and District Writing Circle's magazine Aware (issue 4, December 2008) where it was a prize-winning entrant in Aware's competition, themed around, "Flight." A jolly good reason to go a buy a copy too!

Otto stood at the edge of the high ground, the point at which it fell away most steeply, and felt the stiff breeze tug at his neatly cropped hair and beard.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Charles asked, in his head.

"Please don’t," said Miyoko, her voice catching in her throat.

"I have to," Otto murmured. "There is no other way."

"You realise how this is likely gonna end up?" said Wilbur, concerned.

"I promise you," said Otto, "I have keine sorge – no fear."

"Well…" said Wilbur, "it’s your neck."

"Not just yours," Charles murmured.

"It has been a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen, madam. But now, I must fly."

With that, Otto turned, broke into a run, hurled himself off the edge of the mound and into space.

The crowd below, men in frock-coats, ladies in their Sunday-best dresses, gasped.

The bat-winged-like structure of wires and fabric around Otto stretched and groaned as the updraft of air lifted him high over the heads of the people watching. His control of the craft was now well-practised; he could, if the wind was right, hover in the air. Adjusting himself against the triangular control frame, he called down to a figure amongst the spectators beneath him. "Make one of your pictures, Herr Anschütz!"

"I will! I do!" cried out Anschütz, from behind his apparatus, mounted on a tripod.

As Otto alighted on the ground, Wilbur and Orville ran to join him. "That was mighty swell. Whaddya call this thing?" Otto Lilienthal did not speak English, but his brother, Gustav, helping Otto out of the glider, answered in English tinged with both a German and Australian accent, "We call it the ‘Derwitzer.’ Derwitz is where first we made it."

"We read translations of your articles, back in Ohio. But to see it in action – well… that’s something else!"

Otto beamed with pleasure. He may not have understood what the two Americans had said, but their excitement was obvious. "It is a delightful distraction, to fly like a bird." Gustav translated.

"Hey, more than a distraction," said Orville. "It’s been man’s dream to fly like a bird down through the ages! We’ve been trying to solve the flying problem for years now."

"Yeah, we’ve made lotsa machines to test ideas," said Wilbur.

Otto listened to the translation before replying. "To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything."

"Maybe not the best thing," said Charles’ voice.

"What harm could there possibly be to fly like a bird?" Otto thought to himself.

"You have no idea," Charles Sweeney answered.

"No idea at all," Miyoko sobbed. "Not unless you become a hibakusha."

"So," said Orville, "how do you control the – whaddya call it? – the Derwitzer?"

"Ah, yes, gentlemen," Gustav answered. "My brother simply changes the centre of gravity by the slightest shift in his weight. That controls the direction in which the glider travels."

"The slightest shift?" said Wilbur. "Can just a slight alteration make such a big difference?"

"Believe me," Miyoko fought to bring her voice under control. "The tiniest things can have the biggest consequences."

"Ain’t that the truth," said Charles Sweeney. But only Otto, in his head, heard them. Gustav translated what Orville and Wilbur had said for his brother. Otto replied, "It is sufficient. I have made almost two thousand flights now, some as far as fifty metres."

"But what if you had an engine?" Wouldn’t you need some kinda control surfaces? And what about going further? And picking when and how you land?"

"It is true, the glider does not manoeuvre as would a bird. There is a tendency to pitch down, from which it is difficult to recover."

"But we are working on it," Gustav added, "and also are we working on an engine."

"Then we will be able to fly wherever we may wish, whenever we wish, for whatever purpose we wish. We will be as free as the birds."

"Not all of us will be free," Miyoko whispered.

"Come and see me fly again tomorrow," said Otto.

"Gee, I dunno," said Orville Wright. "Me and my brother have found you a great inspiration, Herr Lilienthal."

"But I think we wanna look at some other ways of doing things. We wanna powered machine," Wilbur added.

The next day, August 9th, 1896, as Otto Lilienthal took off in his glider from the great artificial hill he and his bother had constructed outside Berlin, he imagined the two American brothers were still there with him. Suddenly, the glider pitched forward. Otto struggled in vain to regain control, but smashed into the ground. His spine was broken. In his final hours, the voices he had been hearing in his head returned. With one final effort, he said to the Americans, "Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden."

"What?" said Wilbur. "What did he say?"

"‘Small sacrifices must be made.’"

Otto Lilienthal died next day aged 48.

Exactly 49 years later, the span of a man’s lifetime, on August 9th 1945, Major Charles W. Sweeney banked the B29 Superfortress as sharply as he could and at full throttle to get away from the bomb his airplane had just released over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Forty-three seconds later it exploded, killing seventy thousand people.

One of the survivors, one of the "explosion-affected people," or Hibakusha, as they were known, Miyoko Matsubara, imagined herself talking with Otto Lilienthal. Talking, asking, pleading with him not to develop a flying machine. But all she could hear him say were his final words.

Small sacrifices must be made.

The End

Sunday, 2 November 2008

"Brother, Can You Take Me Back?"

Remember what is was like being a teenager? - You will!
"What is the logical value of this q-bit here?" Ms Trisconi demanded, pointing at the magiscreen. She seemed to be getting quite worked up over the matter. It sounded to Daniel like he ought to know – that it was obvious – from something Ms Trisconi had said in the last five minutes. The trouble was – Daniel had not been listening for the last five minutes.

"Erm… True?" he hazarded.

Ms Trisconi glared at him. "Daniel, do you want me to refer you for Realignment Programming?"

"No, miss."

"So – I ask again, if the input q-bits to a ZOR gate are a True and a False, what is the logical value of the output q-bit?" She really meant it this time.

"I don’t know," he answered, honestly. He really meant that too.

"Anyone?" she addressed the rest of the class, mock-weary.

"True-and-false," the class all chorused, like reciting a mantra.

"Now, Daniel, why didn’t you know that?" Ms Trisconi said.

Daniel searched the air itself around him. He glanced at his transputer screen, looked across his desktop and searched, wide-eyed with growing despair, the faces all staring at him. Perhaps he had a chance to redeem himself with one last throw of the dice. "Because it’s all bollocks, miss?"


Daniel was wandering disconsolately down the blue atrium, with no particular place to go, when he spotted Claire. Claire was just about his best friend. Indeed, she was about his only friend – for some reason he just couldn’t seem to get on with the other kids. Claire, however, seemed to understand him. A little. At least, she was prepared to listen to him. Usually. He approached her. She spoke first, before he had time to say hello.

"You idiot! Do you really want to go to Alignment classes?" she snapped. Perhaps she was not so understanding after all.

"I suppose not."

"Then why do you say such daft things in lessons? Trisconi’s bound to report you now!"

"What did I say that was daft?"

"Everyone knows the output of a ZOR gate is true-and-false. It’s like, d’ur, the most basic thing in quantum transputing. And using language like that too. You’ll get an F for respect in Civics as well now."

"But it is bollocks," Daniel insisted. "How can anything be true and false at the same time?"

"That’s the whole point of quantum transputing – it’s all based on a superposition of entangled possibilities before the collapse of the probability density function! Like Shrödinger’s Cat."

"Claire," Daniel spoke cautiously, "where did you learn to speak English?"

She glowered at him. "Do you know, at this rate, by the time you graduate from school, you’ll be a hundred years old?"

Daniel hesitated. Claire was his best friend. Perhaps now it was time to tell her his biggest secret. No matter what the consequences.

"Claire – listen. I’ve got something very important to tell you."

She shrugged, turning partly away from him, and didn’t speak.

"Claire… I already am over a hundred years old."

For a moment, she still said nothing. Then she spun back on him. "Daniel," she yelled, "you’re impossible!" and stormed off.


It was after Environics that he caught up with her again. She was in the panodome but, unusually for her, she didn’t have her head in a screen, but was staring out through the thermoglass into the distance, arms folded.

He walked up behind her and said, quietly, "I accept you for what you are ."

"What do you mean, ‘accept me’? For what?"

"Well… for having purple hair for a start."

"What’s wrong with purple hair? It’s not dyed – it’s natural, you know."

"That’s what so scary," he murmured.


"And you’re a girl."

"Of course I’m a girl, you – " she ran out of words. "Is this about us having sex again?"

"We didn’t have sex before," he quibbled.

"We talked about having sex before. We decided it would be a bad idea at our age. And with wrist-pods," she raised her hand to show the electronic device strapped to her arm, "we’d soon be spotted together and get in trouble, and we’d both fail our Responsibility exam."

"That’s what I meant," he winked. "We talked about it before, but we haven’t had it before."

Despite herself, Claire couldn’t keep a grin playing around the corners of her mouth. Of all the people she knew, he was the only one who could make fun of serious matters like this. And he was the only one who made her laugh about them.

"What’s wrong with being a girl, anyway?" she pouted.

"Nothing. It’s very nice, in fact. It’s just that – when I first went to school, it was a boys-only school."

"When was that?" she mocked. "In the middle of the twentieth century?"

"Exactly!" he hissed. "I first went to secondary school in 1966."

The smile faded from Claire’s face, replaced by a look of concern. "Why don’t you speak to Ms Grubczak, in S.E? Maybe she could help you."

"I don’t need advice from Ms Grubczak or Spiritual Enlightenment or anything else. I just need to confide in a friend. My best friend. Even if my best friend does have tits."

"Daniel!" Claire could snarl like a rottweiler when she chose to.

"I’m sorry. It’s just that when I was a teenager, I never knew any girls."

"Daniel, you’re a teenager now."

"Alright – when’s my birthday?"

"I dunno – sometime around the summer solstice."

"What year?"

"2055 – same as mine. We’re both fifteen years old."

"Claire – I was born in 1955."

She studied his face. "Maybe you should get your hormones checked at MedLab."

"I’m absolutely serious, Claire. This is the second time I’ve been through adolescence in my life. And I’m absolutely hating it."


He caught up with her again outside, behind the bicycle sheds – it was funny how some things didn’t change about school even over a century. Even if, now, the bikes all had hydrogen cells. They both were wearing shades, to protect their eyes from the UV, but it looked like a fashion statement. Claire was listening to pipe groove on her wrist pod. She was moving in time with the music, as if in a miniature dance, and the volume was so loud he could hear it coming out of her nose. He tapped her on the shoulder.

"That stuff will rot your brain."

She removed her earplugs. "It’s top – don’t tell me you don’t like pipe."

"It’s sodding bag-pipe and drums like they used to play at the Edinburgh Tattoo, speeded up and played on synthesisers!" he snorted.

"What’s a bag-pipe?"

"What you were – almost – listening to now. They were played by Scots men in kilts and annoyed everybody because it sounds like someone strangling a cat!"

"Get up to date, will you? You’re beginning to sound like my parents."

"I’m old enough to be your great, great grand parent."

"And where do you get off on that rubbish? ‘I’ve been here before’ and all that crap?"

"It’s not crap. It’s the truth. I went to a school with no girls in a building that was made of brick with windows so high up the wall you couldn’t see out, not this – " he gestured to the gleaming building behind him " – thing that looks like someone threw up a pile of goldfish bowls. And we had uniforms and we had proper subjects like chemistry and history and maths – not Personal Development and Civic Responsibility and Quantum Transputing and – what’s that other thing? – Spiritual Enlightenment, whatever that is."

"And I suppose you didn’t wear sun-screen and drove around in petrol cars too!" she snapped.

"No," he shook his head slowly. "Not the cars. You couldn’t learn to drive till you were eighteen."

"So how did you end up here in year ten of Ganesh College?"

He sat down on a low wall and waited patiently for her to join him. Eventually, she gave in and took her place by his side. "You didn’t meet me to the beginning of this academic year?"


"That’s because they didn’t let me loose till this summer."

"Who? Who didn’t?"

"I had a whole life before this one. In the middle of my nineties in 2050, I fell ill. The doctors told me that they were developing a treatment for what I had, but it wasn’t quite ready. They offered to put me in suspended animation and when the treatment was perfect they would fix me and bring me round. I mean, I didn’t know what they had in mind – I was an old get who’d long since lost interest in scientific developments in the world, and, to tell the truth, the world in general. I was what some call, ‘waiting for God.’ My life seemed almost over. However, have you heard the saying, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die?"

"I – I’m not sure. I might have in S.E."

"Well, I thought, ‘What the hell,’ and said, ‘OK.’ It was stupid really – all my friends had gone, all my close relatives had died and I didn’t see even my kids or grand-kids any more. To be honest, I didn’t think it would work. I’d just quietly go to sleep in comfort and that would be that."

"What was the treatment?"

"It was called stem-cell technology or something at the time. I suppose it’s what you call bio-regenics today."

Claire was taking this seriously. She tugged absent-mindedly on her wrist-pod. "What happened?"

"Well – apparently – they eventually got it to work. They brought me round, finally. But it was ten years later. And they’d not simply cured my illness, they had re-grown my muscle, skin and bone. I was a centenarian in an infant’s body."

"Ozone holes!" said Claire. Beyond that, she had no other comment.

"So after that I went through a period of rehabilitation and readjustment – there was no need for me to got to school to learn to read and write and I didn’t have to be potty trained. Walking was a bit odd at first. Ultimately, they got me to a state where they felt I could be reintegrated back into society. I was a teenager by then. So here I am at school. I’m learning all these stupid subjects that didn’t exist when I really was a teenager all those years ago, I don’t understand any of it, I’m not interested in any of it and everybody is giving me a hard time, especially that Trisconi woman. She just keeps getting on my back every day and I’m sick of it. All the stuff I know is useless and all the stuff they’re trying to cram in my head just gets on my bloody nerves."

Claire absorbed this. "What was it like, life back then? In the nineteen hundreds?"

"Nothing special. Or, that’s how I felt at the time. By comparison, it seemed a lot more sensible than life today."

"I’ve often wondered about back then. I mean I’ve read about it and see it in videos. I sometimes think I might have liked it."

Daniel was dubious, then something occurred to him. "Maybe that’s why you and I sort of get on together."

"What did you do for a living?"

"I was a computer programmer until I retired. Then I took up growing roses in my back garden."

"But you don’t programme transputers. You just specify the problem in assertive terminology and the solution-algorithm is self-generating."

"Well-remembered! It’s almost like you’re brainwashed. Meanwhile, the one thing I was good at and earned a comfortable living from isn’t even a job anymore and I’m supposed to learn a new career. As if I could care less. And I’m supposed to like bloody bag-pipe music too!" Daniel was clenching his fists in rage by now.

"Daniel," said Claire at length. "What’s a rose?"


They were walking along beneath the overpass near the Interchange, the quiet hum of vehicles above filling the gaps in their conversation. At length Daniel asked, "Won’t they notice we’re missing Recreational Studies?"

Claire thumbed at her wrist-pod. "With a bit of luck, the overpass will mess up our pod signals and we’ll just tell them we missed the Shuttle back from the Mall."

"That’s just what I used to say when I used to bunk off Latin. Sort of." He looked at her. "Before you ask, Latin was the language everybody spoke before English took over, but about two thousand years earlier. Alright?"

Claire mouthed the word, "Oh," in ill-feigned interest.

"But you do really know what a rose is, don’t you?"

"Of course I do," she said. "I was just testing you to see if you did."

"Ah. I see."

"I’ve seen one in the museum. I’m still not sure what a kilt is, though."

They were running short of anywhere interesting to walk. There was a service gantry with a metal stairway that rose to a dizzying height. Few people passed by here. Opening a gate, they climbed to a platform, sat and looked out on a deserted urban tableau.

"Why are you testing me?" Daniel said. "Don’t you believe me?"

"That you’re a hundred and fifteen years old. Of course I believe you."

"Thank you," he said.

"It’s just that you don’t look a day over a hundred and ten."

"Look!" he said, seriously, on the edge of losing his temper. "I’m like that Shrödinger’s Cat. I’m in a superposition of states – I’m fifteen and I’m one hundred and fifteen!"

Claire looked suitably chastened. "What about your parents – the people you live with?"

"The foster parents, you mean?"

"You’re a hundred and fifteen and have foster parents?"

"No – the parents I live with are called Mr and Mrs Foster – they have other children… What do you think I mean! I have to appear to be an ordinary teenager. And that’s just how they treat me – always on at me to work hard at college, grounding me if I stay out late and being a real pain in the backside."


"So that I won’t stand out and because I’m supposed to need looking after – this is an entirely different world from the one I knew. What’s more – " he broke off.


"I’m not supposed to tell anyone. The treatment I had is still experimental. You don’t even qualify for it unless you reach a hundred."

"What – like a prize?"

"Some prize! Anyway, if anyone finds out, it could be… rescinded."


"Revoked." He could see her staring at him, uncomprehending. "I think it means they’d take me and chuck me back in the freezer if I blab. What’s more, you could be in danger too."

"Why would I be in danger?"

"Because if you told some old folk they could have a second life, they’d all want one!" Daniel was exasperated. "I don’t know – all I know is it’s supposed to be a secret and I’m sworn to silence. The old folk wouldn’t be so keen if they remembered what it was like to be a teenager, having grown-ups always telling you what to do and asking you ‘what about your future?’ and crap like that. And now I’ve gone and told you because you’re the only person I really trust. And you’re probably the one person I shouldn’t have told because you could get into trouble!"

"I can take care of myself."

"Oh, yeah, tough-girl. And what if they turn you into a Popsicle too?"

"Let them try," she said, defiantly. "Creeps."

He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Look, I don’t want anything happening to you, because I care about you."

"I know. I care about you," she shrugged.

"No – I mean, really care. Y’know?…"

"You mean?…."

He nodded, slowly. "Yeah," he said, at last. "I have strong feelings for a fifteen year old school girl and I’m over one hundred years old."

She looked at him, surprised at first, then, coyly. "You dirty old man," she said, with a wink.

The Educhief’s private lounge, Ms Trisconi and Ms Grubczak faced Ms Ohuruogu, the chef du mission of Ganesh College.

"He’s rude, ignorant, and… dare I say?… discourteous even," Ms Trisconi was going on. "I’ve never met a student like him. He shows no interest in learning anything. He behaves like somebody from the Middle Ages!"

Ms Ohuruogu looked askance at Ms Trisconi. This was a day she had secretly been dreading. Before she could respond, Ms Grubczak interceded. "I think Daniel may have some deep spiritual issue he is struggling with. I have noticed him showing signs of distraction, as if something is preying on his mind. I have attempted to show empathy in compassion-sessions with him to seek out his inner conflicts…"

"Oh, shut up!" said Ms Trisconi, her voice, soggy with derision, betraying a slightly less enlightened attitude than was conventional.

"Colleagues, colleagues," said Ms Grubczak, "we need to try and find a way to move forward with Daniel. This groupthink has done nothing but focus on the past so far!"

"If we allow a student to realign his learning posture, it could spread to the other students."

"I think you’re overstating the situation," said Ms Ohuruogu, though she sounded less than convincing.

"Am I? Things like this have a contagion. And once it gets a hold, we could lose our educredit rating!"

"It is true," Grubczak nodded. "Disrupting the harmony of one insight period could spread to – "

"Will you stop talking like some reincarnated hippy!" Trisconi snapped.

"You’ve no idea what hippies were like, you post-post-post-modernist!" Grubczak retorted, with unusual venom.

"Colleagues, you are becoming heated!" said Ms Ohuruogu, heatedly. "There is more to this situation than meets the eye." She sighed heavily. "I didn’t want to have to tell you this. You are sworn to secrecy. Understand?"

The two education engineers exchanged glances, then nodded. "What is it?" said Grubczak.

"Is it something we really want to know?" said Trisconi.

"I’m afraid… it has become so." Ohuruogu pressed her thumb against the identity window of a filing carousel and extracted a piece of gutenberg. The sheet glowed with Daniel’s college report. She invited the two education engineers to see.

"There’s nothing odd there," said Trisconi, still reading Daniel’s record details. "He turned up here last solstice, seemed to settle in, then he’s gradually become more…"

"Discordant," Grubczak prompted.

"Where was he before?" said Trisconi. "I can’t see any previous college record."

"It’s confidential," said Ohuruogu. "Here’s why." She pressed her thumb against an ident patch on the gutenberg, and the image changed. "See?" she said, heavily.

Grubczak craned her head and read aloud. "‘Daniel… educated to tertiary level… Hertford College… King George V grammar school…’ Where on Earth’s that?"

"And ‘The Lazarus Institute’?" said Trisconi. "That’s not a college… Isn’t it a?…" She broke off.

"A hospital?" Grubczak broke in.

"‘Daniel was admitted, after attempts to treat him for…’" This time Trisconi’s voice trailed off into silence. Grubczak, still reading, remained speechless.

"So you see," said Ohuruogu, "if anyone’s ‘reincarnated’…"

"So that’s why Claire gets on with him so well," said Grubczak, with sudden realisation, "She’s always been a bit of a romantic when it comes to Antiquity Studies."

"Claire? Who’s Claire?"

"The girl he spends most of his personal study sessions with," Grubczak and Trisconi answered in unison. "They’re inseparable," Trisconi added.

"Possibly in more ways than one," Grubczak continued. Was that a twinkle in her eye?

"Where are they now?" said Ohuruogu. The two education engineers shook their heads. Ohuruogu flicked at the gutenberg. It was hyperlinked to the Omnipres that tracked the students’ wrist-pods. "Something’s interfering with the signal. They were last detected heading under the Interchange"

"You don’t think they might…" said Trisconi.

"Oh no," said Grubczak. Though she might have been struggling to hide a wry smile. She was a bit of a romantic at heart, too.

"That was nice," Claire said.
"Really?" said Daniel.

"Would you like to do it again?"


"We’ve waited a long time till now."

"And people our age used to do it all the time?"

"Not all the time. They needed to rest occasionally," Daniel winked. "And, usually, when a little older, to be honest. At least, you ought to have been older. And," he waved his hand in act of dismissal, "without quite the age gap."

"What’s it called again?"


"‘Kissing’," she mused. "It’s a nice word. I often wondered what it would have been like, to have lived a hundred years ago. It always sounds, well, so much nicer than now. So much more alive."

Daniel grinned. "Believe me, if you liked that, you’ll love what comes next."

"You mean ‘sex,’" said she.

"I mean ‘making love’." His face suddenly clouded over. "I’m… I’ve just realised… I’m sorry."

"What? What’s the matter?"

"Well, you really aren’t old enough."

She sighed. "C’m’ere." She kissed him again. "Of course I’m old enough." He was aware that she was breathing slowly but heavily. "After all, I know all the theory. Time for the practical."

He kissed her back, slowly and longingly. "I’m sorry," he said again, hoarsely.

"There’s no need to be," she spoke, hoarsely back.

"No – I mean ‘I’m sorry we’re doing this under an overpass.’"

"Don’t be," she whispered in his ear. "It’s just like in those 20th Century novels. It’s so book."

They kissed again. "I don’t know" he murmured, "the 21st Century has some good points too."

Suddenly, an amplified voice boomed out. "You are surrounded. Come out with your clothes on!"

"They’ve found us!" Claire gasped.

Daniel leapt up. "How did they manage to track us down so quickly?"

"You really aren’t used to this century, are you?"

"Daniel!" a voice boomed, "we know you are having some… problems. Please come and talk to us."

"What are they up to?" hissed Claire. "Are they planning something?"

"In this day and age – what do you think?"

"Daniel!" The voice again. "We’ve got someone here from The Institute. They just want to talk to you."

"Like fun they just want to talk," said Daniel. ‘Like fun,’ – an expression he remembered from The Catcher In The Rye.

"What will they do to you?" Claire demanded.

"More to the point, what will they do to you."

"But I’ve not done anything." Then, realising what she had said: "Neither have you."

"It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you know."

Again the booming voice: "If you don’t come out, we’ll have to come in and get you!"

Daniel stood at the railing of the gantry platform. "It seems," he said heavily, "I’ve got no choice."

"There’s always a choice!" said Claire. "I don’t want Realignment Programming, or any of their other techno-crap. I want to be me."

Daniel turned and looked at her, then kissed her gently on the forehead. "That’s all I ever wanted. That and being with you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me in both my lives."

He was turning away once more as she grabbed his arm. "That’s the one thing they can’t have. Who we really are. Our lives."

He stared hard at her face. "Do you mean…? Do you really mean…"

She suddenly seem to relax, become calm almost. "It’s the only thing we’ve got to lose. And what have they got to offer us in return?"

"Claire, I –"

"Do you really want to go back?"

"Do you really not?"

"Not without you."

Way below the gantry and some distance back from the overpass, Dr Stinger stood with two nursing attendants and the Community Custodians. Ms Ohuruogu and her education engineers watched in horror as two figures flung themselves from the platform and crashed sickeningly to the ground.

Ms Grubczak screamed. The nursing attendants dashed to the prone stricken forms, motionless on the asphalt.

"Why did they do that?" Ms Grubczak began to sob.

Ms Trisconi shook her head, more puzzled than distressed like her colleague. "They had no cause to rebel."

"Who knows?" said Dr Stinger. "Perhaps we will find out, eventually."

"What do you mean?" said Ms Ohuruogu. "You think you will be able to save them?"

"But of course," said Dr Stinger. "It may take us a little time, a year or two even. But we have the technology. Of course, I must insist that you do not tell anyone – it is still," – he paused – "a sensitive subject. Nevertheless, I promise you we will be able to treat them. Perhaps a little realigning also. Then they will be back with you, bright young students. Their whole lives ahead of them."

The End