Total Pageviews

Thursday, 22 April 2010

iSociety #fridayflash


Not that long ago it had been overpopulation that had roused the passions of the worlds environmentalists, sociologists and thinkers. With an ageing population hungrily consuming the earth's limited resources and Government funded education programmes and free contraception doing little to halt the spiralling birth rate, many agreed that the future looked bleak.

The 2015 Global Internet Initiative was lauded as the greatest development project of the 21st century; the opportunity to close the divide between the riches of the west and those nations formerly known as third world. It would create entrepreneurial opportunities in communities that had historically been isolated from the global marketplace. It would beam world-class educational materials direct into the homes of children who had never set foot in a school. It would, in short, be the greatest thing since sliced bread, and perhaps most importantly would enable the countless politicians, businessmen and shady oligarchs who had supported and funded the initiative to pat themselves on the back and say what a great job they'd done in bringing ebay and facebook to all those poor people.

Whilst the joys of social networking and skype no doubt enhanced many third world lives, it was the pornography industry which reaped some of the greatest rewards. By appealing to the most basic of instincts many smut peddling billionaires were born. It was however the worldwide launch of the synaesthesia chip in 2020 which heralded the next major step in the evolution of the 'Adult' market.

The Synaesthesia chip, implanted into consumers at a bargain price thanks to huge subsidies from advertisers delighted at the opportunity to beam their messages straight into their targets skulls, enabled individuals to become fully immersed in the Internet. What had previously been a purely visual and aural experience could now stimulate every single sense; a coffee advert would beam the smell of the freshly ground beans into consumers noses, whilst numerous health spas found themselves going out of business now that a pampering massage could be experienced without anyone having to lay a finger on your physical flesh. The border between the virtual and 'real' worlds began to blur and come the launch in 2115 of the sixth generation chip the ability to virtually 'eat' any meal of your choosing on demand even put the food industry out of business, with liquid 'food' (pumped straight into their homes through the system that historically provided that now passé substance 'water') containing the perfect mix of nutrients required without the need for a single minute of preparation the new fuel of choice for the Virtually Human population.

Every new technology from the cave painting onwards has been put to intimate use by some individuals but until the Synaesthesia Chip was launched none had really been considered a preferable alternative to the experience of an actual physical coupling. Although the Daily Mail had initially hailed it to be a greater danger than crack cocaine, before long the online 'romance' experience had moved from seedy to mainstream, millions delighting in the joys of an experience tailored to your own personal needs without any of the risks or emotional hang ups associated with real life. It wasn't even all about sex; many subscribed religiously to the software which would give the consumers a permanent sensation of being in the first flushes of love.

And so it was that the world came to reach a dire state of crisis. As humanity retreated into its virtual shell the act of actual reproduction became a niche activity. Those who felt the primal urge to become a parent could do so in the Virtual world without having any of the agonies of childbirth. There was no need to ever fear for the safety and health virtual offspring due to their immortality - unless, of course, you'd had enough of the digi-child in which case you could simply uninstall the software and get on as if they had never existed (which, strictly speaking, was true). If current trends continued then within 50 years the average age of the population would be over 80, a situation that would clearly be unsustainable given that the vast majority of the rapidly shrinking younger population had no interest at all in a 'real world' profession such as nursing or care, and had even less interest in providing support for their own forbears. Life 'offline' held no appeal anymore; what was the point of accepting anything less than your very own idea of perfection when it was available to you simply with a blink of your eye?

Whilst most scientists agreed that it was a giant meteorite that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, it was something considerably more mundane that thinned to human herd. On April 23rd 2125 a small earthquake - quite inconsequential in richter scale terms - erupted beneath Japan and cut the power to the Synaesthesia Lifestyle Systems servers that nestled at the base of Mount Fuji. With the power cut, the whole world suddenly found itself plunged back into reality, a place most citizens had not visited within the past decade. Hearts that had over time slowed to fewer than 30 beats a second could not cope with the sudden shock and at least 30% of the population dropped dead in an instant. Many more sent themselves to a grisly end within minutes of the awakening as they hacked away at their own skulls in an effort to bring their short circuited chips back to life. Their bodies weak and malnourished, the citizens of iSociety were no longer fit for life in the physical world, and given the underdeveloped - neigh, nonexistent - immune systems that they possessed as a result of their lack of exposure to anything other than a sterile home environment, an outbreak of influenza quickly killed most of them within weeks of them having tentatively ventured into the outside world.

In a perfect realisation of Darwin’s principals, by 2126 only 144,000 humans remained, all but the very fittest having perished. Many had mocked their ways over the past century but it was the TechnoPuritans who truly had the last laugh.

iSociety had had its day - it was time to return to a life of honest labour and embrace the realities of human nature and the infinite joys and disappointments of messy, complicated, population growing human love.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Disappearing Act #fridayflash

This is an edited version of a longer story written for Leeds Writers Group.......

Disappearing Act

Excited at the prospect of attending her first school dance, Ruth Hennessy spent all her pocket money on cheap make up which she caked on with the subtlety of a clown. Seeing her little girl preening and pouting precociously in front of the mirror, Ruth’s mother decided that she could delay the inevitable no longer; the time had come to teach her the facts of life. Mrs Hennessy’s intentions were good, but when it came down to it she couldn’t bring herself to go into any level of biological detail and as a result Ruth spent most of the dance with horror on her face as she observed her classmates slow dancing and sharing awkward kisses, both activities she had been led to believe could make a baby if the participants weren’t taking what her mother obliquely referred to as ’precautions’.

A couple of weeks of secondary school were all it took for Ruth to realise she’d been duped; the contraband copies of Seventeen magazine pored over behind the bike sheds set her straight as far as sex was concerned, even if some of the practices referred to in the problem pages did leave her feeling repulsed. Although she was somewhat grateful that her Mum had spared her the embarrassment of a conversation complete with all the anatomical in and outs, she was livid that she’d been spun a lie which, had she had been unfortunate enough to repeat it, would have made her look like an idiot in front of her friends.

Several years previously Ruth had visited a magic show which culminated in the magician wowing the audience by making his assistant disappear. At the time Ruth was distraught, convinced that the girl had experienced some terrible fate and refusing to be consoled no matter how many times her grandfather explained that she hadn’t really been transported through time as The Great Magnifico had led her to believe. A disappearing act would, Ruth decided, be the perfect way to get revenge on her parents.

On Friday morning, Ruth ripped a page out of an exercise book and wrote a note which she left under her pillow. In her schoolbag alongside her usual books and pencilcase she packed her toothbrush, Gameboy and teddybear. Spending the night on the streets didn’t, she reasoned, mean that she had to live like a tramp – a few home comforts would make the night go a lot quicker. She wished that she could bring her duvet but there was no way she would be able to smuggle that to school without arousing any suspicion. Anyhow, she would be back in her bed tomorrow, with her parents so grateful to have her home that they would never dare to deceive her again.

When the school bell rang at 3.30pm Ruth made her way to the station and caught a train to the next town. Back home, her Mum sat watching the clock and wondering where Ruth had got to - she would usually have called if she was going to be delayed for any reason. By 6pm Mrs Hennessy was beginning to panic, and when her husband returned from work an hour later she was in a state of hysteria. At 7.15pm they found the scribbled note which struck fear into both their hearts;

‘Don’t look for me. I’m not coming back’.

For the first few hours Ruth kept herself entertained browsing the shops, but before long the only place open was a small supermarket and the suspicious looks that the security guard gave her as she traversed the aisles for the tenth time told her it was time to move on. She looked young for her age so even with make up on there was no chance of her being able to pass the evening in a pub, so the only remaining option was a fastfood joint. Ruth sat drinking a milkshake as slowly as possible whilst playing on her GameBoy until the batteries ran out. At 11pm the pizza-faced burger vendor apologetically told her that it was time to close, so Ruth reluctantly headed out onto the streets. It was freezing cold but she was adamant that she was going to stick it out; running away would be nowhere near as dramatic if she were to return home, tail between legs, before the night was through. Ruth sat on a bench and hugged her knees under her chin in an effort to keep warm.

“You should be careful around here, you know.”

Ruth turned to see a man looking at her out the window of a black car.

“Young girls on the street, well, sometimes they disappear. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll give you a lift home?”

“I’m waiting for someone” she replied, wishing that he would leave her alone. The way that he was staring, eyes wandering up and down her school uniform, was making her feel uncomfortable.

'Pretend what you like but it's true. Girls on the street disappear and never come back. Sure you don't want a ride?

Ruth shook her head.

'Your loss;' the man in the car muttered as he pulled away. Long after he was gone from sight the driver's words continued to echo around Ruth's head.


Disappear and never come back.

In that instant Ruth realised how flawed her plan had been. The magician on the pier, that had all been smoke and mirrors, and although the audience had marvelled at the fact that the girl had apparently vanished into thin air, they would not have been applauding if they had any doubt that she would live to perform the same act the next day. Out here however, in the strange and unfamiliar world of the night, tomorrow seemed very far away.

With tears in her eyes and regret seeping from every pore Ruth turned on her mobile phone and dialled.

This vanishing act was never going to receive a standing ovation or critical acclaim. It was time to bring the curtain down.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

'Kiss Me Quick' #fridayflash


A local news programme once informed me this city is the further from the coast in the whole of the Britain. Whilst this may have some advantages in this age of freak weather and rising sea levels, on the rare occasion that I find the sun blazing down and a commitment free weekend ahead I find myself pining for the nostalgic pleasure of the seaside; ice creams, sticks of rock, stripey deckchairs et al. I can't quite recollect if this image stems from an actual childhood memory or from years of Sunday sitcoms and carry on movies, but just imagining lungs filled with salty air and the cacophonous squawking of circling gulls transports me to a happy place far from the concerns of everyday life.

I was walking through the park on my way to the supermarket, iPod blasting at full volume in an attempt to let Bill ‘Lovely Day’ Withers transport me away from the graffiti and dog crap reality of my journey. This was a route that I'd taken many times before, and the fact that we were experiencing freakishly good weather for April did little to detract from the fact that the Nobby Herring Memorial Park was a grim place, preferred hangout of drug dealers and local disaffected youths and not somewhere you would wish to linger for any longer than strictly necessary. I was, as usual, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the locale, when out the corner of my eye I saw a flash of brilliant blue. Taken aback by something so colourful against this dismal backdrop, I broke with my usual rule and looked up to see a barefooted girl wearing a billowing blue dress dancing on the dead grass, rucksack at her side.

'She sells seashells on the seashore. She sells seashells on the seashore.'

I'd had a relatively heavy night on the town but I was pretty sure that I wasn't seeing things.

'Hasn't anyone told you it's rude to stare?'

The girl stopped dancing and was now stood still, hands on hips and head tilted coquettishly.

'I'm sorry, it's just that I was daydreaming that I was walking along the beach rather than negotiating the litter in this dump, and then there you were, singing about seashells. Weird.'

'Yeah, whatever.'

I was about to walk on but she was staring at me intently in a way that suggested she was waiting for me to speak.

'Er, I've not seen you here before. Are you local?'

'Maybe you just haven't been looking properly. Aurora.'

'Steve. Pleased to meet you'.

Aurora sat down, dress spread in a circle, and patted the ground, beckoning me to join her. Kicking aside a crumpled coke can, I accepted the offer.

'So, you were saying that you were dreaming of the sea?’ she said. ‘I love the sea. So romantic.’

'Me too, though to be honest I was thinking about the funfairs, donkeys and kiss me quick hats side of things rather than waves crashing on the shore.'

‘Kiss me quick hats?’ she repeated quizzically. ‘What’s a kiss me quick hat?’

‘Surely you must have heard of them;’ I replied. ‘When I was a kid my granddad used to always wear one when we went to the seaside. I found it mortifying, of course.’

Aurora laughed.

‘And did he get many kisses?’

‘Well, given that my grandma was always at his side ready to fend off any admirers with her walking stick, unfortunately not.’

‘And do you have one of these famous hats in your wardrobe?’ she said with a grin on her face. ‘Because you know what, if you were wearing one right now, I might just have to...’

I blushed.

‘You might just have to what?’

‘Might just have to kiss you. Maybe quickly, or maybe like this’

She leaned over and lifted my chin with her hand until we were staring into each other’s eyes, then firmly pressed her lips to mine. In an instant I saw the Nobby Herring Memorial Park in a whole new light; in my nineteen uneventful years of existence there had been maybe half a dozen girls prepared to swap saliva with me and yet here I was with this beautiful stranger kissing me passionately and running her hands all over my body in broad daylight. It was like all my adolescent dreams came true all at once, and far more exciting than anything that the internet could provide.

The kiss must have gone on for a full minute before she pulled away, bringing me reluctantly back down to earth from what had felt like a truly divine experience.

‘I’m sorry, Steve’ she said apologetically. ‘I don’t normally do that kind of thing, I’ve no idea what came over me.’ She grabbed her bag and leapt to her feet.

‘Wait!’ I called out as she frantically brushed grass from her dress. ‘There’s no need to apologise, that was amazing. Want to grab a coffee or something?’

She shook her head.

‘No, I really have to go, I’ve got to get to a lecture. Maybe see you around?’

‘Yes, that would be great;’ I replied. ‘Can I give you my number?’

She shook her head again.

‘No, I don’t think so. But it was nice meeting you.’

With that curt reply she turned and walked away, leaving me dazed and confused. Had I really just shared the best kiss of my life with a random girl in the middle of the park?

Bemused, I rose to my feet. I wasn't really in the mood for grocery shopping anymore, but aware of the bare cupboards in my flat I begrudgingly decided to continue on my original mission. I reached into my jacket to retrieve my iPod; for once Bill Withers had been right, this had turned out to be a lovely day indeed. It was then that I sadly realised that if something seems too good to be true, chances are that it is. No wonder she had been keen to kiss me quick and squeeze me slowly; the spontaneous seduction had actually been the perfect cover for a thorough excavation of my pockets. No regrets though; in that instant I would have signed over my soul if only she had asked, so a £150 mp3 player and £16 in change were a comparatively small price to pay.

Friday, 2 April 2010

'Ova' my dead body #fridayflash

A light-hearted story for Easter weekend, a slice of English village life.


The cancellation of the 97th annual Winfordshire egg rolling contest was considered by many to be an outrage. Generations of Winfordshire folk had grown up with the contest as important a date in the family calendar as their birthday, Christmas or the last day of term, and the prospect of Easter passing by without the competitive thrill of rushing down the hill, typically whilst being pounded by the wind and rain characteristic of English springtime, was enough to bring tears to the eyes of local residents young and old.

“Health and safety?!” scoffed Edna Burridge, 89 years of age and a lifelong Winfordshire lass. “There was no such thing back in my day. A few knocks and scrapes never did anyone any harm. It certainly wasn’t health and safety that won us the war, you mark my words.”

The local council did not however pay any attention to Edna’s words, or indeed those of any of the other 63 angry citizens who bombarded them with letters, phone calls and mildly veiled threats. In this increasingly litigious age they could simply not afford to bear the risk associated with an event which had recorded in the annals of its glorious history countless cases of concussion, eighteen broken limbs and at least a dozen arrests. In spite of Edna’s declaration that ‘you’ll stop that contest over my dead body!’, the cancellation remained in place and Edna remained in the same rude health as ever.

Regardless of the council’s decree that the event had been outlawed, the citizens of Winfordshire carried on regardless with the task of painstakingly decorating their eggs. Those ignorant enough to question the point of spending hours painting a detailed design on an egg only to throw it down a muddy hill were treated with derision and pointed in the direction of the local museum where a lovingly assembled scrapbook would greet them with photographs of their parents, grandparents and even great grandparents performing the very same task, and the proprietor Brian would solemnly inform them that tradition is tradition, no questions asked.

Word spread that the killjoy council would be locking the gates to the park on Easter Sunday morning in order to prevent any illegal egg rolling activity from taking place, so the self appointed people’s committee of maths teacher Peter Fletcher, ferret fancier Allen Monroe and lifelong Winfordshire lass Edna Burridge, 89, decided that an alternative approach was required. Although tradition decreed that the egg rolling would always take place immediately after the 10am easter morning service at St Barnabus’, they agreed that breaking with a small element of tradition would be preferable to bowing to the bureaucrats and cancelling the event completely. Word quickly spread of the new arrangements and the self appointed committee were confident that there would be a good turn out at the inaugural Winfordshire midnight egg rolling contest.

At approximately quarter to twelve on the night of April 3rd, at least one hundred members of the Winfordshire population crept from their houses into the cold dark street, wrapped up warm in gloves and scarves and grasping a precious egg-shaped cargo. Rogue council worker (and grandson of Edna) Richard Burridge had misappropriated the spare set of park keys, an abnormally deviant act for the straight-laced accountant and one that made him somewhat fearful for his job and final salary pension. Into the park streamed men, women and children, some rolling virgins but the majority faithful disciples of the great school of Egg. Like sheep they flocked towards the top of the hill where they stood in silence, waiting for the sign.

Arthritis and hips that had seen better days meant that Edna had, twelve months ago, had to sadly announce her retirement from egg rolling. Her unbroken record for the most consecutive wins – six back in the early 1970s – afforded her a VIP status that made her the natural choice for taking charge of the event in the absence of the usual council officials. At the bottom of the hill, as instructed, she flashed her torch three times in a row before bellowing ‘Go!’. In an instant eggs were furiously launched down the slope, their trajectory followed in quick succession by a flurry of flailing limbs and screaming mouths. Within thirty seconds the first egg reached the finish line and Edna declared its young owner the winner, taking a photo on her grandson’s fancy digital camera of the boy holding the red and white striped egg aloft which would take pride of place in the Winfordshire museum scrapbook alongside the images of the previous seventy victors. In the background of the photo could be made out dozens of shadowy figures, some sat on the ground holding grazed knees or aching heads, others bent over struggling to catch a breath after their brief annual stint of physical activity. Everyone, no matter how bloodied or bruised, shared in the elation of the winner. This was a victory for everyone, a victory over those cursed words health and safety, a victory over the man.

Whilst the good citizens of Winfordshire were celebrating easter at St Barnabus’ church, or, in the case of the more secularly mind, with a chocolate egg shaped breakfast in bed, local councillor and park keeper Eric Marmaduke rigidly stood guard at the park gate like one of the Queens’ beefeaters, although with a slightly less impressive hat. He was quite surprised by how quiet it was this morning – after the mountain of complaint letters that had landed on his mat he would not have been surprised to have been greeted by angry protesters with signs and threats of violence. To be honest it was even quiet by the standards of a usual Sunday, as if everyone had simultaneously decided to spend an extra hour in bed rather than going about their usual routines. When the clock struck midday without the slightest hint of trouble having occurred, Mr Marmaduke decided that he no longer needed to stand sentry; the good citizens of Winfordshire had clearly come to realise that by calling an end to the preposterous act of carnage that they like to call tradition he had only had their best interests at heart. He had been wrong to doubt them.

At 12.01 Eric Marmaduke opened the park gates and was greeted by a carpet of rainbow egg shells.

At 12.01 and ten seconds Eric Marmaduke greeted the carpet of rainbow egg shells with a very rude word.