MASTERING THE SUN
It is true! Peace everywhere!
People will think what I’m creating is equally impossible: clean, cheap, unlimited energy. They call me crazy if I explain what I’m doing, and even laugh. Will Magnus laugh too?
When I’m nervous my mind clicks into calculations, just like here in the woods behind the Institute. I love crushing the frosty grass and leaves underfoot and cracking the ice in puddles. Over the trees comes the evening swarm of airpods. Dom Ross Mackenzie of Global Enterprises GWP will be returning. He assumes he can touch down at the Institute and drop in on me just because his parking slot happens to be under my lab window. He wants only to find out how I’m getting on, in his patronising way! That’s precisely why I have to see Magnus. Will Magnus understand what I need? Or is he, like most people, risk-averse?
The designers of this new estate anticipated warmer summers and milder winters, so oleanders and olive trees are shivering along the avenues. I must keep calm. Pause. Gather thoughts. His doorknocker looks like a geometrical afterthought, two trapezoids, one cut out of the other. My first knock is tentative. My second rattles the door in its frame. I’m apprehensive, standing here and thinking all this into my wordfree monitor for the i-witnessfuturepast.com project. It’s hanging on a chain round my neck, small and shiny like my mother’s old-fashioned locket, but records everything within earshot. Knock even harder. The door opens, leaving a narrow gap for me to slip in before it clicks shut. A tall, seasoned man stands surveying me.
‘You must be Nicholas. Why didn’t you voice me?’ Caution, I suppose… uncertainty?
‘I was afraid you’d refuse to see me.’
His eyes are hidden below a strong forehead and heavy brows – a handsome, leathery face, lined by experience. He seems diffident. Or arrogant? There’s no entrance hall to pause in, just space with four square benches. The white ceiling curves imperceptibly into gleaming wallscreens. News flashes below people moving along a familiar street to aisles in a supermarket. Sound is merely a muttering backdrop.
‘People shy away from the unfamiliar.’ I like his gravelly voice. ‘Local streets and supermarkets like these are unchallenging. They’re only a kilometre away.’
My mum Eliza talks about tragedy sculpting people’s faces into hollows under eyes and cheekbones. There’s a sober majesty, she says, in ageing. She first heard about Magnus when he became rich and famous through his dance and mime videosequences and somehow imagines he could help me.
I can’t help staring at a striking young woman in a supermarket aisle. She has thick auburn hair, and, well… an attractive figure.
‘She’s known locally as a fashion stylist,’ Magnus says, and raises his hand towards the figures so his wordfree – a tiny internet-linked computer inset in his wrist – summons more intelligible sounds. Now I can hear her extolling the jacket she has plucked off a rail. ‘Every room here is i-linked to local and global matters.’ He’s matter of fact: I’m concerned. ‘Even the bathroom,’ he adds, ‘in case something crucial is lost’.
I thought my lab had the absolute latest technology, but these people walking and talking out of wallscreens make me uneasy. I remain stranded as he stands still surveying me. Life strolls through here as people from the screen walls laugh, utter convivial banalities, select stores, walk along the streets, greeting, waving, scowling, pleading, organising and looking at us unseeingly, in near and distant motion. He hasn’t taken my winter jacket. I deposit it on a bench and wait, awkwardly clutching my T-reader and wordfree monitor close enough to register my thoughts.
‘I don’t think I can… talk to you here.’
‘Well, this house is my workplace, my living area and my world space. I don’t go out if I can help it.’ Magnus raises his wrist as if blessing the fashion stylist on the wallscreen as she discourses on yet another outfit. She disappears into an opening. It’s a sort of hidden door like one behind wallpaper in an ancient country house. I follow Magnus into a space with an actual window, so no screen at least on that wall! Outside a garden dissolves into the evening shadows beneath the flashing blue lights and faint throbbing of the airpods overhead.
‘There should be less pollution now with fewer landborne vehicles and a decreasing world population,’ Magnus remarks in a monotone. He sighs as he sits down on a sofa and points to an armchair facing him. The material looks shiny, almost as if wet. This room’s airless. I need a drink, water or something stronger to give me courage. He sits looking at me in silence, his eyes so deep that I can’t fathom any colour, sparkle or expression, his arms along the back of the sofa and his head on one side. I doubt I’ll ever have his thick brindled hair in my old age. Nor those bristling eyebrows, the high forehead, or the air of a seasoned warrior. Yet he seems uneasy, haunted. I regret coming here now. We should have met on neutral ground.
‘So?’ He’s waiting for me to start. I open up my T-reader, which everyone has now instead of the old laptop computer, to show the crucial calculations I still have to test. There’s just enough information to indicate where they are leading, but not too much. I desperately need independent funding. Can I trust him? I stare out of the window to avoid screens that might be registering my thoughts as well as my image. African scenes are now rippling over the continuous wallpaper above the word-flow of breaking news.
‘So?’ He’s observing me. Outside the window I glimpse a strip of grass, random trees and a fence separating us from the next house. The last airpods have landed and a squadron of geese flies into the fading sunset.
‘Have you… been to Africa recently?’ I break the silence, addressing the window away from the screens before looking back at him.
‘Not exactly.’ Magnus isn’t given to lengthy answers. ‘I don’t travel if I can help it. It’s better left to field workers.’
African wildlife ambles round the room. If only these creatures could tell me how to approach him. I’ll start by asking general questions about world developments to combat injustice and secure sustainable environments. He mentions that birth-rates have fallen. When did the Goodwill World Parliament legislate for all tiny adult wrist wordfrees to contain a contraceptive, reversible for couples who opt for parenthood? Or should I discuss how effectively crops are cultivated, harvested and distributed where needed or ask how spare food is stored in World Food Banks, and if woodlands are being replanted? Or…
‘Is it too hot or cold in here?’ Another pause. ‘I’m afraid I can’t spend too long with you. There are a number of urgent ecalls for me to deal with and vlogs to go through.’
I’ll make a snap announcement.
‘I think I’ve discovered a way to produce vast amounts of clean and inexpensive energy.’ I hesitate. ‘I just have to carry out a final series of tests.’ There’s no response. ‘Perhaps you could help me?’
‘Perhaps I could.’
‘The trouble is…’ How much should I tell Magnus? That Dom Ross Mackenzie’s engineers are planning a worldwide network of dual-purpose receptor dishes? That his engineers can’t yet transform a concentrated solar beam into electricity? Butterflies use solar energy to fly. That’s what I’m doing – my ‘infinenergy’ invention. Dom Ross Mackenzie has every reason to fund my final tests. I just don’t trust him. I imagine Magnus is thinking, I’ve known young people like Nicholas. They think they have their equivalent of the philosopher’s stone, that they and they alone can put the world to rights. If only…youthful impatience… and so on.
‘You’re being harassed?’ How does Magnus know, or has he guessed? ‘Would you like a drink?’ He raises his wrist before getting up from the sofa. A section of the wall moves again like a door.
‘Don’t you have a wrist wordfree?’ he asks. I can’t tell from his tone whether he is surprised I don’t have one, genuinely curious or disapproving.
‘No. Not with all the equipment in my lab.’ That’s my pat explanation if asked why I have a separate wordfree monitor. He nods as if he has known all along. I’m not sure whether I should follow him through the door, but I do. He’s placing bottles and glasses on a tray. This sort of sleek, hi-tech kitchen is the latest trend: all metal sheen and no wood, but cleaned at a wordfree command. You have to leave the kitchen quickly, my sister Martha informs me. A strong draught blows the dust away, then scalding water laced with disfectfoam sprays all surfaces before they’re rinsed shiny. Two huge dishwashers cleanse cutlery, dishes and everything removable. More interesting is a board on a wall in the eating recess. On it, behind glassite, are numerous sketches of streets and houses. They must be his own drawings, so minutely accurate that one can imagine oneself a fly buzzing round inside, or a miniature mouse creeping into every crevice. Not a detail missed. But no dust, dirt, smells – just pure unpolluted space in this miniature version of our city here in a corner of Magnus’s kitchen.
‘Don’t look at that…’ Unguarded moments reveal most. ‘I don’t like people coming in here.’ He moves to take my elbow, his face disturbed, but I’m already slipping back through the door to pick up my T-reader from the table in front of the sofa. He’s more at ease now, surrounded by African scenes and drinking a cocktail of his invention. It has a strange, yellowy tang.
‘The amazing regeneration of the former Sub-Saharan war zone is at a turning point,’ he remarks, ‘with African villages growing into townships and organisations becoming ever more complex’. Yes. Fine, but I’m wondering whether he heard my request, so I try to reintroduce it.
‘There’s… a tidal barrier in the estuary. Offshore wind farms generate some, not enough, of our energy here.’ I’m not getting anywhere. ‘Nuclear fusion may, or should, soon produce more.’ I state the obvious. ‘But I don’t think any of them can … can provide the clean, reliable, unlimited, inexpensive energy I propose.’ I pause. ‘No need for raw materials. No noxious waste. No…’ At last he takes my T-reader to scrutinise the calculations and, I hope, concise explanations. I’m waiting what seems a long, long time, then he looks up.
‘What do you need for these tests?’
‘A sparsely populated area and an unpolluted atmosphere. Near the equator. A lab capsule and equipment that can be sent by air… if I have the means to cover their cost, transport and installation.’
‘It’s hard enough,’ Magnus comments, ‘to co-ordinate initiatives involving indigenous populations, let alone a scientific one like yours. I dislike organisations or individuals who take over and profit from them,’ adding, ‘but it’s difficult to devise a way to avoid this’. He refers to cautionary experiments with Communism in the past, and I immediately think of China’s influence in Africa, but neither of us mentions it. ‘Nor does the democratic process necessarily select the best person for the job.’ He falls silent and continues scrolling through the T-reader.
Mum met him at a dance festival held in the main square years ago. She thinks he is part of an organisation formed to tap the energy of everyone wishing to change the world, bypassing governments and big business. A new route requiring a new economic structure. I still hear Dom Ross Mackenzie’s condescending laughter from an unavoidable exchange on my lab staircase: those who think there is an ideal way…we’ve been there before…look at history, the dictators, benevolent or otherwise, one-party states…Communism or Fascism or any other isms you care to conjure up. All succumb to some form of corruption because everyone’s greedy – if there’s the opportunity. Nobody ever has enough. Like it or not, rivalry, discontent and envy are in our genes.
Should I say something? I’m hoping Magnus will comment on my T-reader material. Instead he raises his wrist to open the door to the entrance hall. Dismissed. Then –
‘I’ll voice you when I’ve set up the conference to decide whether we have the will and the means to underwrite your tests.’
I walk back through the wood, flicking the torch on my wordfree monitor to see the way. The lights are still on in my lab, but I’m not going in. One of my collaborators, probably Raphael, might be working late. Dom Ross Mackenzie may have dropped in and even now be waiting to pester me with more probing questions and invitations – his silver-grey limousine is parked in its designated slot.
Better to move away from the lab block towards the only old building on the site. I’m still upset by the ugly wound the code lock has made on the main door. It’s the same on the oak door to my rooms. Shoes and pullover lie on the chair where I chucked them on top of the novel I’m reading. It’s a luxury item, because nobody prints books anymore. People just sit back, enlarge the electronic text on a big screen or use their wrist wordfrees to read while eating. As I eat, I watch the latest news on my solitary wall-mounted screen. This evening it’s all speculation about the future Chinese leader and the current US president. There must surely be other worthwhile stories somewhere in the world right now?
Reading in bed, with no screens around me – bliss! What would Magnus’s bedroom be like? He told me every room was ‘i-linked’, so the bedroom too would have screen wallpaper: a landscape, or better, a cloudscape? Perhaps just blue sky. This Institute supports blue sky research. It’s independent, though attached to the University, and funded by revenue from start-ups using inventions patented by its scientists. This isn’t enough. That’s how Xiang Lu, founder of the World Potential Company, became involved. Maybe Dom Ross Mackenzie as well? He pillaged my online publications and encouraged his scientists to develop my urban energy control-save-recycle invention, going on to patent and commercialise it – no mention of me or of the Institute. I found out, but didn’t have the time or courage to protest. Anyway, by then it was too late.
These tiny wordfree insets inside people’s wrists have been obligatory for some time now. They’re pulse-charged. At first wordfrees just registered speech directed at them, then whispers, and now they are so sensitive that they pick up thoughts unless they are directed into the encoded section of the wordfree, a sort of personal thought-edit bank, open for perusal through a personal code. When I was a child, mum refused to have a wrist inset wordfree for her and for me before it became obligatory to ensure everyone is safe. A pity. It would probably be wiser to store my thoughts and ideas inside my wrist, but I never remove my wordfree from the chain round my neck. It’s always on, as requested by the Goodwill World Parliament, and linked to the i-witnessNIC227.futurepast.com project. It is encrypted for fifty years, so I can feel free to think what I like.
As I turn off the light, half asleep, the after-image of Magnus’s strange entrance hall looms into the darkness: the shopping mall and the young auburn-haired woman with the elegant figure. Her face comes closer as she whispers,
‘This is right for you. It’s the solution to your problems. Take this …’ and she holds out something too close for me to see, but I look into her eyes, believe her and fall asleep over my book.
(scrolled at the bottom of all screens worldwide)
PRESS RELEASE FROM A RECENT MEETING OF THE COMMITTEE OF WORLD CITIZENS PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
The Committee of World Citizens’ Past, Present and Future unanimously agrees to the following four proposals:
Firstly, a Peruvian delegate has proposed the launch of a website to serve as a blog platform. Its aim is to record everyday life in its rich variety as well as hukind’s crucial discoveries affecting future generations. The website will be encrypted for fifty years so that contributors may blog or vlog about anything or anyone without fear of complaint, challenge or legal action. A young German delegate proposed that, since many people are living well beyond a century, a further twenty-five years might afford website contributors more protection. After some debate it was agreed that individuals could opt for an additional twenty-five years and that passwords would provide an adequate safeguard.
The website name i-witnessfuturepast.com was approved by the Committee and is now officially in operation.
Secondly, it was agreed that the international news outlet worldaroundyounews.com should not receive a Goodwill World Parliament subsidy but remain a commercial entity enabling all world citizens to be heard. Worldaroundyounews.com will be responsible for the continuous local and global news scrolled below all screens worldwide together with the means to translate it into any language.
Thirdly, it was agreed that internationally significant companies and voluntary organisations supporting the Goodwill World Parliament’s promotion of peace and population control, may be registered and put the letters GWP after their name.
Fourthly, in response to requests from Australia, India and Africa, it was confirmed that the Goodwill World Parliament should award an honorific title to world citizens who have performed exceptional public service for the benefit of hukind. The title ‘Dom’, from ‘dominus’ meaning ‘master’, was agreed because it is internationally recognisable, non-hereditary and gender neutral. It recalls the historic title ‘Master of the Arts’ awarded to those with exceptional gifts, skills and wisdom.
All the above proposals agreed by the World Citizens’ Past, Present and Future Committee have been ratified by the Goodwill World Parliament.
[The following is repeated after newsflashes or bulletins on worldaroundyounews.com.]
- SPEAK highlighted words for more information or –
- deaf and/or dumb world citizens touch highlighted words on screen
- blind citizens say VOICE, NEXT, STOP and MORE to screen as appropriate
- immobile citizens say VOICE to one of the above options
- mentally challenged citizens say SLOW, REPEAT or AGAIN after any of the above options
- CHOOSE language by speaking it until a response in the same language is obtained. All languages still spoken available
- If none of the above works, just bear with the system and wait for a virtual operator. The accompanying tune may be chosen from one of the 200 visually and audibly matched options
- ONLY TOUCH THE SCREENS IF DEAF AND/OR DUMB using a gentle fingertouch – do NOT use nail, knuckle, toe, heel (with or without shoe), head or any other part of the body. Do not use any instrument (sharp or blunt), as the surface crystals may take some time to heal. BE WARNED. The screen is not covered by any guarantee.
- For emergencies call SCREEN CRISIS CENTRE on your wordfree inset or any other appliance incorporated into the worldwide web.
- Say REPEAT if required, otherwise there is no repeat.
- Thank you, danke, merci, gracias, grazie…
- Say STOP to cease sound and return to the screen-saving wall design option you have chosen.
Knocking – and a young scientist appears at my door! I never open it except once a month to receive my heat-sealed orange mart package from the delivery robot. It flashes a quivering green delivery notice across the screens until I tell it (or shout at it, to be honest) that yes, I’ve registered its arrival. Then comes a smiling red mouth and a robotic version of ‘have a nice day!’ Few utter words nowadays. Instead purple sense-sound pulses of positive feelings are projected onto the screens around me backed by poppies, sunflowers or whatever floating on blue-grey waves of soothing electronic sounds.
The young man pausing leaning on my doorframe is dark blue, all angles as he holds out his hand at 45 degrees, a luminous blue quarter circle saying, ‘I’m Nicholas Middlethorpe’. His words brush over my face gently. He strides past, his nervous smile showing four regular teeth. A mobile mouth; six teeth, now eight teeth as he talks. He’s wearing a soft-blue check shirt, more shapes and numbers. They layer themselves up into a picture of him settling into my space. He already suggests movement: I might try out a dance to represent him. Maybe, but I’m all aging angles and increasing numbers weigh me down. Nicholas is talking, his words in waves of grey.
I shouldn’t have let him into my kitchen. These sketches are just for myself. Not sketches really, but meticulous drawings. I lose myself in the kitchen ones – a record of the streets and buildings where I grew up. Here I can adjust my space, keep the angles and proportions as I want. Mostly. I sometimes try to close the whole i-linked system and use candles, but it’ll only dim down. If I try to turn my wrist wordfree off with everything else, to be alone, really alone and safe, it just goes on standby. The Goodwill World Parliament stresses wrist insets ensure everyone’s safety. There could be another meteorstrophe or some unknown humade disaster.
There might be fewer calamities if we redistribute wealth and abolish poverty, which is what Reaching Out is supposed to be doing. But the rich are predictably resilient. They hang on. I could do without assertive politicians, diplomats, spymasters, footballers, pop stars and cult idols who inflame the public’s red-mouthed hunger for secrets and salacious confessions. Reaching Out suits me. It operates quietly behind the scenes. Too quietly, perhaps, to help a scientist like Nicholas with potential to change the world. Low profile people like me are part of the decision-making process when our cells are activated. I may be dealing with oil wells in Africa and interfaith schools in Syria for the Peace Enterprise Zones, but I’m just Magnus in a home studio that could be anywhere in the world.
Convening a Reaching Out conference to discuss Nicholas’s project takes nearly a week. With the problem of time zones, it’s hard to summon a quorum of at least twenty-five representatives to debate any issue. Sleeping hours somewhere, waking hours elsewhere. We now take it in turns to have day or night sessions. Accept a fair share of inconvenience or don’t become a representative.
Nicholas is disconcerting. He appears to confide in me, then veers away, almost in a panic. Too intelligent, people might say. Worse, too intellectual, implying a degree of arrogance. His face is so clearly cut in light and shadow that every emotion is clearly shaped, every thought hidden. A fine-boned face and spare body, strangely angled, always alert as if something is about to happen.
* * * * *
I’m waiting for Nicholas in the living room and can just see the road to the right and the sky-blue helousine, its rotating blades spinning yellow. Every time Nicholas comes it appears at the same spot, just before he voices my wordfree to say he’s arrived.
He is early. We are waiting for the conference in a cube of soft golden light. He asks how I came to dance.
‘I was always, my mother said, “fidgeting to music” as a child. She warned me there was no money in dance and mime. She was right. It wasn’t easy to pay one’s way. A friend suggested I might donate blood as she did, or sperm, which she couldn’t. So I did both.’
‘And then?’ I’d said enough, but he wanted to hear more. It seems to stop him fretting about the helousine and the conference delay. He wants me to explain my ideas about dance and numbers. With his brilliant mathematical mind, he’ll probably find it odd.
‘Numbers aren’t only rhythms. Some have colour potential, like primary colours, and others have shades. Red is dominant for 3. So 3 times 1 equals 3, with the red enhanced three times over by the colours latent in 1 and so on. It gets more complicated. This is not a scientific explanation, but just as true. It’s personal and, I suppose, emotionally charged, but none the less real for that.’ Well, I have tried.
‘Strange!’ he says, distracted. He’s sharply angled, waiting. So am I.
‘You asked what I meant,’ I say calmly, ‘so I told you. It doesn’t harm you or anyone else even if you think it’s crazy, and it doesn’t change what I think, or rather, feel’. Rationalisation tags on behind experience. There’s smell and taste in numbers as inextricably blended as in food. Texture too. Numbers have these powers. Dance, rhythm and music recreate them.
‘What about Reaching Out?’
‘Those were the best years of my life. We helped to create a grass-roots revolution to promote peace and aid people in need of food, medicine, shelter, water, energy, tools – everything. Reaching Out gave us a voice. It was a cacophony for a while, and we all had to take our turn. Mine is now.’
Still waiting, silently now in a cube of grey light.
Often, like now, I’m amazed how rapidly everything changed. The world was in shock after the assassination of Pope Matthew and the peace and human rights activist Sheik Abdul el Khali on the steps of Saint Peter’s in Rome. Miracles can happen. The Goodwill World Parliament was founded to oversee universal disarmament. Reaching Out became involved in the arms checks following the amnesty. Almost unbelievably GWP legislation outlawing all weapons was ratified by every national and zone government. It seemed the world was pausing with every colour saturated, as if imbued with hope. Is Nicholas too young to remember all this? Amazingly dictators, oil-rich sheiks vied to become peacemakers. Former warmongers doubted the GWP could enforce disarmament. Well, it has so far. Peace spread faster than doomsters predicted. After all, wordfree messages unite us physically through the throb of our pulses. People of my age are still amazed that we live in a peaceful world.
I look at Nicholas. He smiles. We sit in silence. Only the green purr of the network reminds us that our world of shimmering colours is in touch, if we direct thoughts towards it. I’m mid-term in my committee service and involved in a former war zone in sub-Saharan Africa. The Goodwill World Parliament warns that we need alternative sources of non-polluting energy to maintain world peace. Should Reaching Out support Nicholas?
Still waiting. The edges of the cube deepen into blue.
At last the Reaching Out icon is flashing. I’m about to convene the obligatory quorum of representatives for policy decisions and he’s like a tightly strung, highly tuned Stradivarius.
‘Please, Magnus, don’t ask me too many questions!’
‘I’ll have to, Nicholas. First there must be a majority in favour of your proposal. Then, if it’s passed, the test site has to be chosen. I’d prefer it to go to one in sub-Saharan Africa, but I’ve only one vote. I’ll do my best. Let’s get it through the first stage. They all have your outline proposal. You and your collaborators, Raphael and Esther, can create infinenergy with a satellite solar panel that concentrates a beam above cloud level and projects it on to a receptor. A trial infinenergy panel is already in orbit on a Goodwill World Parliament satellite. All you need now is funding for you to calculate and test the precise angle the infinenergy beam hits the receptor to avoid collateral damage. Let’s hear their reactions.’
It’s the Northern Hemisphere’s turn to sit in darkness while the Southern Hemisphere meets in daylight. Screens are throbbing grey, yellow and blue throughout my capsule but I’m stationing myself in the living room while Nicholas walks out into the entrance area and back again.
‘How long will it take?’
‘Not long. We’re waiting for Carlos and Ana from South America – Venezuela and Chile respectively. Africa and Australia are ready, but Asia is lagging. Some delegates are in transit and need to settle for the line to clear. Canada is just coming in with Tom from Calgary and the USA is waiting for Beth and some others. China and India have problems with local issues, but they’ll come on soon. Be patient!’
Difficult, if your life’s purpose, if all your dreams are bundled into a single, tight, blue-grey, minutely stitched project, so compressed that it could be smashed out of court in seconds. Scary, if you have invested your hopes and maximum brainpower in an ambitious scheme now to be judged by many who don’t fully understand it. One face, then more faces pop up on the screens, all speaking out. As convenor, I click on each to be silent while Isabel from Puerto Rico is speaking and her face automatically enlarges. Reaching Out uses the old national identities to designate areas even if they have been tidied into new groupings.
‘Does this infinenergy project override other sources? We have conventional solar power here and are developing tidal energy in a big way.’ She’s actually speaking Spanish, but we listen to the instantaneous English translation requested. It’s mechanically accurate.
‘That’s right!’ echoes Shilpa from Jaipur. ‘India is combining solar power and biomass – algae actually – would we have to stop?’
‘We still have reserves of coal,’ Cheng-fu from somewhere in North China observes ponderously.
‘Stop using it! You’re polluting,’ Jake from Alberta, Canada, almost yells.
‘We too have coal to spare,’ insists Alabu from Uganda, ‘but if this revolutionary method works with costs as low as the inventor claims, then we should try it, just in case’.
‘It’s made out to be revolutionary,’ Holly from Mississippi pipes up anxiously. ‘Who will beam the laser or whatever to start the generating and where from? In lay person’s terms, please.’
‘Just so,’ a shrill voice from Australia – Jane this time – ‘we don’t really understand how it works. The brain behind the whole fantastic or crazy or dangerous scheme, this Nicholas Middlethorpe, must explain it all, in every minute detail!’
‘That’s precisely what this conference is about,’ I intervene. Why don’t delegates read what they are sent? Like most people in this cyber universe, they never have time and will only have skimmed Nicholas’s complex proposal minutes before the meeting. All delegates are volunteers and do as much or as little as they feel they should, for no personal gain. ‘Does Reaching Out agree to support Dr. Middlethorpe’s final tests?’
‘Where?’ Ramon from Peru.
‘First,’ I say, ‘let’s vote on whether we’ll fund these tests and with what conditions. I know of at least two other major initiatives striving to solve the energy crisis. If we don’t support this invention, it might be exploited by some huge conglomerate in global power politics and become too expensive for the world’s poor.’ I hope this doesn’t sound like a threat and anxiously begin to summarise Nicholas’s invention (such as I understand it) before leaving them to decide. He remains silent. More lights are flashing under some delegates’ images to request a talk slot.
‘Whatever we do, it must promote democracy,’ says Lorna from Scotland.
‘And peace.’ That is Zuami from South Africa. He’s the only delegate I’ve actually met.
After more deliberation, the delegates finally vote to support Nicholas’s tests. Faces bob back and forth over the wall screens in bursts of vociferous discussion about proposed sites for the tests, with me stuck chairing the whole crucial process. An obscure village in North China appears to be the favourite, though two places in Africa gain support after the ones in South and Central America are discarded as too remote. Reaching Out Central Bank can only allocate a limited sum for scientific experiments and voices argue about the mountains surrounding the Chinese location and various sites’ proximity or otherwise to internet, air, rail and road access. A message flashes over our screens: an anonymous donor has given a sum for a sub-Saharan site in a Goodwill World Parliament peace settlement zone, and that turns the vote in its favour. No one queries where the money comes from or why it targets the African site. As convenor, maybe I should do so, but that would mean postponing the vote, and then reconvening with a number of delegates who haven’t been able to join in this time. There would have to be another session retracing the same arguments and Nicholas is, rightly, anxious to start tests and register internationally his intellectual property. Serendipity. It so happens that the site agreed on is where I was caught in the meteorstrophe.
I’ve turned the system off, that is, to the obligatory standby. Our white then grey cube of space is gradually suffused with the pearl tone of dawn. It’s too late to sleep, too early to start the day’s business. Nicholas has slumped, speechless, on to the sofa.
‘Are you pleased at the outcome?’
He shrugs his shoulders. ‘I need to test my calculations, far away, somewhere near the equator where people aren’t watching. Just to make sure they work.’ I feel he is dark blue and see his shape as 9×5=45, and 4+5=9, 3 squared. Nothing could be easier for him than to slip away to a remote part of sub-Saharan Africa. Or could it? Assumptions can be dangerous. Nicholas insists on leaving by the emergency exit in the kitchen to avoid the helousine. He glances at my drawings in the dining-area but doesn’t say anything. When I return to look out of the living room window, the sky-blue helousine is whirling over my house towards the woods between here and the Institute.
If I had not volunteered to join Reaching Out, I might not have chosen to go to the Peace Enterprise Zone in Africa. I might not have met Gaia. I might have gone down another path into my future. Instead I am here without her.
Holding her rose-coloured stone in my hand while thinking this blog into my wordfree is a way of ordering my ideas and leaving something of mine out there in the future – a last will and testament to the purpose of my life. Those jagged brown and grey images of the meteorstrophe and Gaia’s death made my fortune and created my nightmare. I must obliterate flashbacks to Africa. What could I have done? I re-live the nightmare of her eyes, of her hands outstretched, of other faces, of screams as homes tip into the chasm, bodies tumbling or whirling in corkscrew winds. No need for words; the wordfree images say it all. I was at the edge of a landslide, my arm raised. A mayhem of booms, cracks, screeches, acrid stench, vermilion gashes of light, people fleeing, gasping, whilst I stood apart recording a devastating meteorstrophe – and for whom? Posterity.
All I have left of Gaia is this stone in my hand.
Those images created my fortune and my nightmare.
LATEST REPORTS FROM GOODWILL WORLD PARLIAMENT PEACE SETTLEMENT AREAS
The current Goodwill World Parliament speaker, Ramiro Palmerio of Argentina, today issued a statement:
‘The Goodwill World Parliament has debated the current situation in northern Syria. This peace zone is now fully self-sufficient in food production and has begun to export produce to neighbouring zones. Irrigation control has significantly increased the water level in the Tigris and Euphrates. The Jordan River has maintained its water level as has the Lake of Galilee, but much more still needs to be done in water conservation. Goats have been transferred from a peace settlement in sub-Saharan Africa to isolated mountain communities where two more schools have been built and women’s small businesses have grown in number and economic activity. Men from different faith communities, under the auspices of the Order of the Dove of Peace, have rebuilt torched churches in Raqqa, formerly headquarters of the discredited fighters who fought, tortured and murdered in a failed attempt to form a caliphate in the area. The democratic government of Syria consists of elected members strictly in proportion to the size of each ethnic community. It is monitored by GWP settlement officers. This government is to be congratulated on what it has achieved, but must develop sport for both men and women at local, zone, national and international levels to channel the population’s energy into peaceful pursuits. The GWP will allocate resources when appropriate applications are submitted.’
The next GWP session in two weeks’ time will review the peace zone in sub-Saharan Africa.
U S President Anya Lo Yin seeks a world platform to share diminishing energy resources. To ensure there is no conflict over their management, her message is: Peace equals prosperity. Repeat it to all your real or virtual friends. Make it your mantra for this year: peace equals prosperity, and say it with a smile.
Speak out highlighted word for more about it or – (as below 1)
I woke this morning imagining clouds gently floating across the blue sky of Magnus’s bedroom walls. Mine look like faded parchment. The old radiators are stirring into warmth and the sun’s shining through dusty panes. Friday. End of week. Time for coffee and toast and to co-ordinate everything we’ve been doing in the lab.
A breeze strokes the grass on the lawns between the Institute building and the lab block. There are snowdrops under the oak and a spring in my step as I approach the lab. Raphael’s already there. I always feel his smile before registering what he’s doing.
‘A good week,’ he says as I open the door. ‘Lots of ideas. Can we talk?’ I’m careful not to say too much. The conference Magnus set up for me isn’t in his area of our energy project. I choose just two collaborators at a time – not enough space for more in the lab or my mind. Raphael’s joint projects with Israel, Jordan and Palestine together with neighbouring states will, he predicts, become the engine of the Middle East Alliance. He’s modest about himself, but ambitious in his aims and determined to achieve them, come what may. He calls me over-cautious. Esther agrees.
‘You’re so wary of everything,’ she chides in the tone she might use towards her orphaned brothers and sisters. I suspect that Magnus and Reaching Out promoted the scheme that linked her village with two others to become a successful township in the Sub-Saharan Peace Zone.
We settle down. Every day I have to skim through ecalls from all over the world. Vmails like vlogs take too much time so I discourage them. We discuss what we’re doing in the mid-morning coffee break. It was during one of these that Esther told me how terrorists had set fire to her village and destroyed the crops. Her parents were stabbed to death after weapons were handed in during the worldwide amnesty. Knives can’t be abolished. My stomach tightens when I see her and remember her whispered account of what had happened. Her sponsorship here assumes that she will take our relevant discoveries back home. I’m relieved to see she hasn’t arrived as early as usual, so I’ve no twinge of guilt. Her morning smile invariably accompanies a battery of questions. The more she wants to know, the less energy I have to explain, and that’s unkind. My early morning glow fades under such uncharitable thoughts.
Esther has promised to stay on in the lab today. Now I come to think of it, her region in Sub-Saharan Africa would be perfect for my crucial tests: plenty of sunshine, close to the equator and sparsely populated, just in case something goes wrong. But Magnus needs time to co-ordinate funding and logistics.
I mustn’t be distracted while entering the passwords for my latest calculations. Should I tell the Texan energy research team what I’m testing here on my lab model, or might they snatch my potential breakthrough? I stare at the master screen in my lab and whisper my passwords, then shout silently at everything I’m scrolling through: the calculations HAVE to be right. My discovery is priceless because it is low-cost and limitless. It just has to work.
* * * * *
‘You know I have complete confidence in you.’ Dom Ross Mackenzie stops me on the stairs as I’m leaving the lab. I smile weakly and invite him into the staff room. He is one of the global entrepreneurs behind the University’s transfer to this new campus on the edge of the city, but I don’t want him in my lab.
‘Would you like tea or coffee?’
‘No thank you.’ A pause. ‘I am concerned, Dr. Middlethorpe, about your financial support in the future…’ He goes on about how he can provide whatever I need. I half listen, studiously avoiding his face to look instead at his waistcoat. ‘My scientists can check your core theory… solve the energy distribution… world network of receptors… free you to…’ Waistcoats are now the rage. I start silently playing syncopated rhythms on his drum-like buttons, while he adopts a confidential tone in case the other scientists overhear him. ‘Do let me know when you can dine with me and remember, there’s always a spare bed. Here’s my card.’ Again? I must have half a dozen already.
For his age he’s slim. No paunch really, just a sleek, well-toned figure which he likes others to notice. He moves away, upright and distinctive. A certain distance in his manner keeps one guessing his motives.
* * * * *
After a day stretching my mind beyond its limits till chronic fatigue and listlessness set in, I look forward to a solitary meal and time to think into my wordfree monitor. My sister Martha calls my rooms drab and depressing, but they cocoon me. I can lean back and survey the screen in the kitchen as I eat. Events near or far are streamed on to it – the local beer club’s activities, the endless virtual shelves of our local supermarkets, Sister Julian outside St. Thomas’s pleading for help for her refugees, reports of the far-off vote count and first predictions of the Chinese presidential election. The last US election saw a close victory for the Democrat Anya Lo Yin, daughter of destitute Chinese immigrants, who epitomises the American Dream.
Oh dear! I’ve forgotten it’s my birthday weekend and I always go home. We’re expecting you! My mothers create a special meal and decorate the table as a surprise for Martha and me though today, at the close of the week, I feel like drifting. I’ll only go home for a night so I hardly need to take anything, not even my wordfree monitor. I think I will, though, in case inspiration catches me unawares. It’s on a chain under my shirt though I hardly notice it’s there. Anyway, we’re supposed, as Martha keeps repeating, to be traceable everywhere.
* * * * *
St. Thomas’s church is just outside the old city walls. I pass it on my way to the City Terminus, but have never really taken it in before. I only notice individual objects and features: a flower, a bird perched on a branch, a strange doorway, a pleasing shop display, the aroma of coffee, the glow of a lamp or the shape of a building. Nothing like the detailed cityscapes Magnus draws. Was I taken to St. Thomas’s as a child? I can’t remember. It’s built in that pointed style called Gothic and is ages old. I’m curious. There’s time to have a quick look inside.
‘Nicholas!’ I start when Esther taps my shoulder, ‘follow me’. We leave the flickering lights and smell of burning wax to go under an arch. A face poking out of a voluminous red cape appears in a doorway. Why does a round face suggest a placid nature and dull mind?
‘Sister Julian, this is Nicholas Middlethorpe.’ Her face absorbed in others’ woes smiles at me distractedly.
‘Come in.’ Sister Julian turns into a room lined with wide benches and chests. Above them a large window transmits the chill outside. Bundles lie neatly on benches near a large table. She slides them along to make space for us to sit.
‘Tea? Soup?’ she asks. I shake my head.
‘These bundles are all our refugees have,’ she continues. ‘There’s little heating in the church, one outside toilet, no showers and no proper kitchen. We can manage hot drinks and soup, but it’s all rather rudimentary. Worshippers have taken some of the refugees out to buy their basic needs. They’re confused by our shop robots. Fortunately, we still have the open market – until it’s dismantled to build new housing in the historic centre.’
She stands up and Esther beckons me to follow them back into the aisle where Sister Julian pauses by a side chapel. Seven candles illuminate a book. Two women sit, each holding a candle. Sister Julian pauses, bends her head, then whispers,
‘Abraham is our common spiritual ancestor. We’re all members of the same body. Mohammed too was a holy man. For him, Jesus was a prophet, another holy man of peace,’ and she leaves with Esther through a door opening on to a courtyard.
I sit in the nave and think about what she said and what Raphael has told me. Peace seemed impossible when he was a child. Some countries in the Middle East were, it was thought, building nuclear arsenals. Now the Universal Legal System, backed by the Goodwill World Parliament, bans all weapons. Gun ownership is tightly controlled. Global pressure has turned Jerusalem into an international city.
A young woman carrying two large bags passes me just as Esther returns with Sister Julian. ‘Wonderful!’ she calls out, ‘just leave them in the sacristy,’ and hurries into the shadows. Esther sits down by me. Sister Julian, she explains, belongs to the Order of the Dove of Peace. They only have to make one vow – to spread peace and goodwill by helping others, especially the ill and homeless. She’s called ‘Julian’ after a female saint of that name. I ask her why there was no mention of these refugees on worldaroundyounews. Apparently mining companies don’t want the world to know that harvests have been ruined and water supplies contaminated and populations displaced as a result of their activities. Sister Julian needs support to set up a village-barter initiative for them here in this town. She’s eying the old university buildings threatened with demolition. Esther’s standing up to leave. I’m surprised by what my fellow scientist says and does. African solutions here? If not mad, distinctly odd.
I hear footsteps and see the young woman returning without the bags. She’s unbelievably beautiful, almost radiant in the candlelight caught in her hair. I recognise her and stand up.
‘We met, though you don’t know it, in a friend’s house.’ I hope she’s curious.
‘Was I presenting the new spring styles? People everywhere buy the same tech fashions now. My job is to suggest personalised variations on current fashion. That’s fun. Helping women create their own style.’ She laughs, ‘I give Sister Julian my cast-off clothes for her refugees.’
No precise time was fixed for my birthday meal. Shall I ask her to have coffee or a glass of wine in one of the new café-hubs that have taken over part of my old university? Yes. She agrees. She’s called Helen. I hold her arm gently not to lose her in the evening crowds hurrying home.
I can’t avoid the people I know, so I take Helen over to introduce her to them. Someone tells her I’m at the University Science Research Institute, which doesn’t seem to register one way or another. At some point she smiles and murmurs that she doesn’t understand science. I shouldn’t tell people what I’m doing anyway, so by making it highly scientific, I find they rapidly lose interest. Helen is no exception. I’m surprised when she asks if I have some free time next week.
DISCOVERY OF PRICELESS MASTERPIECE, LOST FOR CENTURIES
A lost canvas by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci has been found by a refugee among vestments in St. Thomas’s Church. If proved authentic, it could raise a huge sum of money for the finder – Sister Julian of the Order of the Dove of Peace – who looks after the many refugees and displaced persons passing through her church. ‘It is a Godsend!’ she declared today. ‘Now I can really help those with nothing to make a new life for themselves and their families.’
The painting represents a princess, Leda, who fell in love with a swan, the disguise of Zeus, King of the Gods on Mount Olympus. Famous in its time, the painting mysteriously vanished – until now! Sister Julian interprets the picture as representing the springtime of birth, and hence of Christ, and sees it as a symbol of hope for our world.
Mothering does not fade away even if you want it to. The shadows gather as I write this. I am alone sitting in the bay window with Foxy, my terrier, on my lap, waiting for Nicholas. Martha is always considerate. We know she will arrive on the 6.20 monopod and make her own way here. It will be dark then, and Nicholas dislikes twilight. He hardly admits it, but I suspect dark evenings and hurtling underground at huge speeds, however environmentally efficient, depress him. I expect him to arrive in daylight and am waiting. He has probably forgotten his house keys.
At least when he comes it is at a weekend. I can soon retire at the earlier pension age, though I quite enjoy working as a full-time enabler managing a network of haven homes for women. Not so many with drug problems these days, or victims of domestic violence (they move out rapidly at the first signs of aggression – how wise women have become!), but internet loners. They can only communicate through screen chat clubs or the plethora of games and alternative worlds on offer – which for them are the ‘real’ ones – and suffer from all the physical and psychological symptoms of internet alienation. Many rely on the so-called ‘stressless pill’.
I am not entirely convinced that these pills, together with our new-fangled capsule haven homes, provide a solution. The capsules can be inserted into historic houses with large enough rooms, though they block out anything of beauty that might remain – mouldings, fireplaces, that sort of thing. Nothing is actually destroyed, though it cannot, in current usage, be enjoyed. New haven homes are built in shiny, rain-washed, time-resistant blistone blocks, never more than four floors high and clustered round a courtyard garden like the old stone Institute building where Nicholas lives. These capsules have everything comfort demands: maximised use of space, state-of-the-art wrapped-round screens in every room, digitally directed cooking facilities, refrigeration, plumbing and plenty of storage space, if used carefully. An amazing design, if you think about it. The trouble is that they are all the same, to reduce costs. Perfect symmetry and no variety. The occupants are supposed, Martha says, to stamp personality on to their capsules. Guestrooms are provided elsewhere in the building for a small charge, as well as a spa, sports complex and heated pool in the roof area to economise land-use – everything residents could wish for. Designed happiness in sharply defined terms of comfort and facilities. People ‘rent to buy’, as the expression goes, so they don’t lose any money. Everything is decided in common, which is part of the anti-alienation therapy. That is where I come in as an eternally optimistic arbitrator. Karen loves the capsules. They have no atmosphere, are imaginatively sterile, but are deemed perfect for the people who live in them.
I am wearing the dark green trouser suit that I used to keep for special occasions – I do not buy clothes anymore. Former best clothes are now everyday wear. As I wait with Foxy on my lap, nose on paws, looking out of a window down a street of small front gardens, I think back to how I met Karen on an excursion to Petra in Jordan. It was during a break in the old conflict between Israel and Palestine, the year we lived, touched and smelled history. A tall, rather leggy blond was holding a stone and staring at temple fronts carved out of pink rocks.
‘Where did you get that stone from?’ was my way of starting a conversation. From then on, we were inseparable. The pink stone is still here on the mantelpiece where she put it the day we moved in. Ten years after we met and before she developed her wine business in China, Karen decided it was time for us to have a family. We joined her surname with part of mine to make Middlethorpe and chose a young, tall, intelligent, fair-haired, athletic and healthy donor, or so the description went. Memories fall like leaves to fade into the past. ‘Now’ seems lost between ‘then’ and what is to come.
That’s him. Dark straight hair like me, except mine is now dyed back to how it once was. His father was supposed to be the athletic type, which I assumed would mean a more muscled build. Nicholas is certainly not as I pictured he would be. His eyes are greenish brown, like mine, I think, but I’m built more assertively. Broader shoulders, more rounded. Tending to put on weight. He probably finds me podgy. He is angular and so pale.
Foxy is yapping at the front door.
* * * * *
‘Hello, mum!’ He had not forgotten the key. ‘Is Martha coming?’ He must have known she would. Like Nicholas, I do not have the latest gadgets that never turn off and throb for attention through wrist implants. I may be old-fashioned, but I do not want anything inserted into me. They started using implants for dogs when I was a child, later tagging troublemakers on probation. Now wrist wordfree insets are not even a fashion accessory but a necessity. Our Goodwill World Parliament prescribes them, all part of connectivity and population control. So they are supposed to be a force for good.
Nicholas always goes to inspect the dining room where, each year, Karen prepares a birthday welcome for him and another for Martha. Foxy pads after him in slavish admiration. Snowdrops are this year’s theme, grouped round beeswax candles that sharpen the whiteness of the flowers. The dark green sprigs of yew seem rather out of tune, I think, but avoid saying. Yew in churchyards. Yew with poisonous berries. Still, it was Karen’s idea for the table centrepiece and I had to keep quiet. She rarely listens to me.
Martha swept in exactly when she said she would, chirpy as ever and bearing gifts wrapped in gold paper. Nicholas hugged her. He adores his half-sister, and who would not? She has bright blue eyes and honey-coloured hair, and is as lively as Karen was when I first met her.
‘This house is to be demolished,’ she announced. ‘I did warn you.’ She sat down at the table, cheerfully dismantling her childhood home and my secret place to paint – the loft. ‘All who have already installed a capsule with sensor screens and world-wide links into their existing homes will have it inserted into the blistone newbuild free of charge. The ones lagging behind like you two’ – was there a touch of condescension in the way she smiled at us? – ‘will have loans’. She shrugged her shoulders at the inevitable, adding, ‘meanwhile there’ll be alternative housing for you both and loads of free storage’.
We are to become part of a modern residential zone, our 150-year-old house not deemed interesting enough to save. Martha gave us a brief lecture on how streets of half-timbered semis in mock-Tudor style were often built on the edge of golf courses – as if Karen and I didn’t know! They have apparently had their time, and are now to be crushed into the foundations of a whole new suburb, to everyone’s advantage, or so we are told by our zone government. Martha is already our zone member. She intends to be our zone’s candidate in the coming elections to the Goodwill World Parliament.
‘Capsule houses are designed to last over one hundred years,’ Martha continued. Even she will be unable to test all she asserts as female life expectancy is only 98 years and she will probably have died before her company’s new homes become eligible for replacement. I toyed with the first course, feeling as if I were about to be crushed into compost for the future. Karen was in the kitchen putting the last touches to the main course while our children sat discussing what was about to happen to their childhood home.
‘The design does incorporate your urban control-save-recycle invention,’ Martha reassured Nicholas, not noticing how unhappy he looked. She must have forgotten about Ross Mackenzie, that entrepreneur who stole it. She seems to have settled neatly into her job of fitting the latest energy-saving devices outside historic houses and capsules inside them. She expounded:
‘We need capsules of all kinds to suit everyone.’ Except me, I thought. ‘People,’ she added, ‘like to take some part of their old interior with them when they move back into the rebuild.’ Our space remade new. Martha also helps people experience a smooth changeover, a tender dismantling instead of a systematic destruction of all associations. We shall relocate to a new home devoid of memories, squeaky clean, waiting to be sullied by our physical and emotional clutter. Designs are decided with the greatest care and attention to what others are convinced you want. Karen, now serving her goulash concoction, would understand me. Or am I unwise to assume she would? She might agree with Martha.
I refuse even to consider our coming eviction, whatever the assurances that our new house will be incomparably better. Martha’s brisk enthusiasm jarred. Nicholas was quiet, out on his usual limb though it was his birthday celebration, the last one he will have here in his birthplace. He smiled and fidgeted less than he used to, but his mind was far off, probably deep into his latest calculations.
‘Try this wine.’ Karen sat down with us at last. ‘It’s the first serious one from China. Their red vintage has greatly improved and was quite highly rated at the wine fair last week. Xiang Lu – who is funding your Institute, Nicholas – will export 80% of the wine produced in China.’
She has always been adventurous, and that is why she has become a wine connoisseur with one of the most visited websites.
‘It’s fine,’ I lied, ‘here’s to Nicholas!’ and we toasted his 27th birthday. The conversation continued with Karen expounding on how China is about to choose its next president, now the mourning period is over. A woman perhaps, especially if with the US President Anya Lo Yin’s support.
‘Let’s get this right,’ Karen insisted, ‘after centuries of injustice we should celebrate that women are now leading the world’.
‘There should be many more women at the top.’ Martha said, pursing her lips. ‘Let’s see what happens in China with its surplus of males!’
Karen laughed. ‘Serves them right for forcing every couple to have one child only. It was some time before they changed this law. Most preferred to have a male child, of course; ways were found to deal with the unwanted females.’
‘Horrible. Don’t even think of it.’ Martha tends to draw curtains over any window into a world she does not wish to contemplate. It is all history, she reminds us, as world population is now under control. True, but less freedom, some might think. Freedom to make mistakes. Everything Martha says seems to come from a politician’s standpoint.
‘So with more men than women,’ Karen continued, ‘there was fierce competition among Chinese males. Some wanted there to be “special houses”, but sharing women leads to obvious paternity confusion, hence brisk business in DNA tests.’ Karen irritates me when she expounds on Chinese matters just because she goes there so often on business. ‘I like the way Chinese women have bonded. No sex unless we say when, where and how. Minority power.’ She laughed.
Nicholas sat silently, probably not listening. He was like that as a child. Politely present, but abstracted from what was said or happening. Round him swirled comments on women in China and the usual condemnation of sexual prejudices and past injustices. He had heard it all too often to listen. I was engraving the scene on to my memory. Moments passed as I observed them from the edge of an unknown future: Nicholas with his presents piled on our Art Deco table and our faces around him, gentle in the candlelight. Contemplating us from the mantelpiece, in front of the stone from Petra and Karen’s fussy figurines from China, are framed photos of Nicholas and Martha playing together, and another over a decade later when they graduated. As I write, this room and the four of us round the table are shrinking into the suitcase of memories that I see myself carrying into the house of our future.
I am shivering, though it is not cold inside here, still hearing the two of them playing years ago, hiding and jumping all over the sofa in the sitting-room, chanting,
‘You’re the Middle, I’m the Thorpe, together now we’re Middlethorpe!’ That was when they were seven, around the time of our marriage. We had a lot to celebrate. Everything had gone to plan. We had a family, a name, and now after so many years, Karen and I are amazingly still together, though we have been arguing on and off for some time. She is often away on one of her business ventures and I am about to hand the haven homes over to a new manager.
Karen coped with Martha’s tantrums over what to wear, buy or eat. The head teacher in their school asked to see us when Nicholas kept on outstripping his class in maths and science subjects, but we didn’t want them to push him up two classes above Martha. Karen found her a place in another school but she refused to move. She might have a brilliant brother her age, but she was the one who was admired for her looks. Then Nicholas was chosen for the new International Academy for Gifted Children where he met Ezra, the brilliant pianist and Lizzy the artist. Ezra often comes to stay and we play piano duets. He has Nicholas’s build and they are even alike in temperament. Martha says he may be coming soon to be the soloist in a concert here. I hope so.
Karen hurried in protecting the twenty-seven candles with her hand. The ribbon I gave her with HAPPY BIRTHDAY NICHOLAS wasn’t round the cake as I wanted but messed up with the yew and snowdrop arrangement. Martha started ‘happy birthday…’ I watched Nicholas opening the parcels as if already in the past: the designer pullover Martha chose for him (he doesn’t care for shopping); from me, a fine reproduction of a Rembrandt self-portrait he particularly admired and an old book (he, too, still reads) and from Karen a pellet of music she likes which he can insert into the computer synthesiser in his Institute rooms. He still looks needy but I didn’t know what else to give him. Maybe the music I used to play to calm him to sleep? It’s one of the most beautiful arias Mozart wrote, a song lost in one of this house’s many technological makeovers since then. Perhaps he has asked Ezra to play it for him? It is Zaïde, a slave girl’s love-song, a lullaby so beautiful that it hurts – a still moment of ecstasy in the frenetic dance of time. A present without past or future.
My joy in us all being here together was fractured by Nicholas jerking to his feet,
wordfree monitor to his ear.
‘No.’ Pause. ‘Sorry,’ teeth gritted, ‘No, I can’t. Really,’ making for the door with a scowl that I had never seen on his face before, ‘I can’t. Please believe me. I’m not free tomorrow, or next week, or…’
He came back, apologised, asked for coffee and started clearing the table as if nothing had happened. If he does not want to tell us, he will not. While the rest of us returned to what we were saying, I could see he was bruised inside. Before he went to bed, I held his shoulders and looked up at him saying,
‘Don’t attempt the impossible, Nicholas.’
‘Why not?’ He looked slightly hurt as he went upstairs to his room.
Foxy can’t settle into my parents’ temporary home. He sniffs and licks and scratches all he can reach. We all wince, but mum doesn’t seem to care.
‘Must we get his claws clipped?’ She’s in tears of course. ‘He hasn’t left any marks. These doors and room surrounds below the wraparound screens are so dense and shiny that nothing can graze, scrape or cut them!’ She’s right. They’re created to be tough, durable and to outlast one’s lifetime. But it’s pointless trying to reassure her. She’s inconsolable. She’s missing the ‘lines of feeling’ that Foxy inscribed on every wooden door at 11 Acacia Avenue, in spite of her ‘No, Foxy, no, no, no!’ and smart taps on the animal’s back.
Every time I look I see mum huddled in one of the two comfortable chairs we’ve brought here from 11 Acacia Avenue. One by one the old houses are being demolished. They’ll be rebuilt over underground storerooms and shelters, all spaces webconnected for future innovations.
‘You’ll be offered a temporary house,’ I assured them on Nicholas’s birthday. Soon afterwards, mum told me, the digger bared its teeth outside their front door. Number 11 began tilting into number 13’s cavity already gouged out for storeroom and shelter. They had to leave. There was no space for them in Nicholas’s rooms at the Institute or in my capsule, so now they are crammed into one of her haven homes, their belongings piled into a storage unit.
‘Why don’t they build capsules for households in transit?’ she wanted to know.
‘Too much bother,’ I explained patiently. ‘You can put household goods into any sealed, lockable space; furniture, ornaments and pictures don’t complain and create easy profits.’ I’m only echoing what zone governments and entrepreneurs say.
An air of doom pervaded their temporary home on the day 11 Acacia Avenue was destroyed. For the first time I noticed mum’s shoulders curving forward and her movements slowing down. Until then I had admired the spring in her step and her waves of enthusiasm, now destroyed by the move.
Was I shocked – is that the right word? – by mum’s strange paintings? I knew she had converted the loft in 11 Acacia Avenue while mother was away in China. She needed space for her books, I assumed, and a room to herself. She never mentioned her paintings.
Mother has always been our more enterprising parent. She started sous-chef, soon becoming wine waiter and then an importer of wine – from China of all places! Mum is miserable here literally in the midst of her work, surrounded by the people she’s caring for. Like them, she’s cast adrift by a society in renewal.
‘Why does our house have to be crushed into dust?’ she repeats.
‘But if we like it as it is?’
‘Others don’t. They want here-and-now technology.’
Mum wanted our old home to remain a historic eyesore in Acacia Avenue, stranded among sleek and shiny techno-dwellings with unlimited virtual space and unsullied surfaces. She’s too involved with past associations; her sense of ownership and money is outdated. What a relief mother is moving with the times!
‘Who’s paying for all these houses to be built?’ Mum is worried in spite of my patient explanations.
‘It’s the “Put-Back” system. You voted for it in the elections nearly five years ago.’
She obviously doesn’t remember and that makes her vulnerable. Voting is obligatory, but you can effectively not vote just by clicking the presence box. That’s what she probably did.
‘Mum, the Asset Redistribution Law gives us our freehold as part of the zone’s future. The wealthy feel they’re enabling others and improving society at the same time. It promotes the feel-good factor. They donate money to the Put-Back Fund that has, by law, to be spent on improving local building stock. It’s people’s second nature to thirst after money and influence, and also to help others.’
‘I can’t bear being patronised.’ She hunches still further back into her chair with Foxy snuggling into her lap like a baby.
‘Just ignore it. You’ll have a place without draughts and with far better sound insulation – no more jolts and judders from airjuggernauts.’
I wish mum wouldn’t be so mournful. She used to be quite cheerful. There’s an acrid smell of fear about her now. She objects to condescension. There was a fair amount of that towards mother from mum’s prosperous and sniffy family. Mother keeps on reminding her that she comes from a tougher background. ‘My lot either sink or swim.’
I’m trying to stop them quarrelling without taking sides, but mum has just leapt up, dropping Foxy and glares at me.
‘You too, Martha, like Karen, you always wave your wrist wordfrees around like, like everyone else, giving orders for everything to happen in this world of total connectivity…’
‘At least -‘ my hands on mum’s shoulders stop her lurching at mother, who’s trying to speak, and flinging any object that snatches her fury… ‘Mother can use her wordfree here, mum, to see what’s happening in the world and…’
‘So you were frustrated at number 11 Acacia Avenue, were you, Karen?’ Mum is quivering in anger – what can I do? ‘I might have known Martha had persuaded you. Long ago, I imagine. Were both of you setting up this move behind my back?’
I feel exhausted at the idea.
‘Calm it, mum! How else could we have kick-started the redevelopment of this zone? It’s inevitable. The Put-Back Fund has to be spent. It’s illegal for it just to remain unused and increase by doing nothing.’
‘Martha, you have contacts all over the place, mostly political.’ Mum’s tone is deliberate, slow and painful. ‘Look how well you’re doing out of it all!’
That’s unfair, but I don’t react.
Change can be exhilarating, but mum is distraught at seeing her paintings publicly stacked and stored alongside mother’s ethereal Chinese landscapes with craggy mountains and twigs sprouting blossom. She turned away with a sob when her piano was pushed into storage, probably remembering the times when she played duets with Nicholas’s schoolfriend Ezra, now a world-famous pianist. They were inseparable at school, even looked alike.
Mum has always tried to create an atmosphere just by being there, talking, asking about the people she knows. Mother instead needs a core to build around, like an event, a celebration or an outing. Take Nicholas’s birthday celebration. Contrary currents must be ignored, always with a masking smile – I learnt that fast in politics. Nicholas was silent most of the time. Even as a child he took time out in company. Mum used to read to us at bedtime, sing or play on her piano while we fell asleep. She would often key her favourite aria – a slave girl Zaide’s song – into the landing sound sensor and tiptoe down the stairs as it played.
No piano now. She frets that the sound board will crack while it’s in store. She just has to wait until they move back to their new home. Their Petra stone is here with the framed photos and now the yellow brick. They aren’t on a mantelpiece because there isn’t one, but on top of mum’s bookshelf next to the Chinese figurines. She couldn’t be without her favourite authors. All her other books are in store. She seems to miss them, even the ones she never reads and paperbacks that people used to give to charity or throw away. Books have a rarity value now, what with everything being recycled into something entirely different. Nobody reads anymore.
Two days ago mum vanished. I found her in Acacia Avenue watching the demolition of their – our – past. She was sitting on the low wall of the front garden, lost in the rumble of the digger and its rhythm: dip, crunch, swing up and sideways to dump bricks, slates, plaster and dust between each future dwelling. Crunch, swing, dump; burnt smell of crushed brick powdered into nostrils and eyes. ‘Get out, lady!’ They yelled at her and I flinched as she darted in to snatch a brick before the monster teeth gripped the rubble. It’s that yellow one on the bookcase by their stone from Petra.
When we turned away to leave, I noticed a silver-grey limousine on the other side of Acacia Avenue. As we moved away it followed us. In the twilight I couldn’t make out whether there was a driver or not.
Preparations will soon start for the election of zone delegates for the Goodwill World Parliament.
Meanwhile in China Chang Lin, graduate of Beijing, Cambridge and Harvard Universities, has changed history. Male dominated Chinese society has surprised the world by electing her the first female Chinese president in a country where women remain a minority. This is the result of the long-discontinued policy of one child per family to curb population growth, formerly resulting in illegal antenatal sex discrimination by aborting female foetuses. Commentators have noted that this may have been behind the significant advances that China has made in genetics and stem cell research.
Think Chinese presidential election for more information.
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