Tag Archives: Amusing myself

The Happiness Engineers

Another short story first draft of about 4,680 words uploaded for criticism / entertainment. A dark little satire on ever more intrusive attempts by governmental agencies to meddle in the lives of their citizens.

No light penetrated this far down.    Down in the gentle darkness of the all encompassing earth.    Behind heavy steel doors set in heavier concrete walls shielded against all harm.   

Here and there shone solitary pools of bright white, spotlit oases in the whispering backroar of many tiny blades pushing tinier air currents.    Banks of steady green lights flickered in identical grey steel skyscraper-like stacks set in row after row.    Each stack three metres tall, half a metre on a side.    Hardly substantial on their own, but all together an intimidating wall of electronic babel.    Countless quadrillions of calculations per second driving the silicon heartbeat of this hidden cavern.   

The heavy doors hissed open and a solitary slightly built figure wearing a second best light blue shirt and dusty black chino’s entered.    This was Neville Malus, senior hardware engineer, whose job was mostly replacing failed modules in this massive data centre.   

As though for effect, the doors hissed closed behind him with a double subsonic thud.   

Ah well, another working day thought Neville.    Blade twenty one, stack 12, row forty two showed a drive with too many bad sectors.    He’d have to manually shut the power down when data processing had mirrored the drives across and shut all the stacks data processes off.    Once that was done he would safely strip out the offending components, and clone the special operating system onto the new module.    Then data processing would remotely spin the server stack up to speed and set it running.

There was the usual on foot visual check, a four kilometre walk all told, just in case the data-shovellers upstairs had managed to shut one or more of the server stacks down by accident.    It happened.    He’d come back from a long weekend last month to find his departmental management replaced and several of the data processor posts filled with unfamiliar faces.    He hadn’t asked questions, just went down to his desk in the server room and fixed the hardware problem like he was told.    That was the nice thing about being this projects sole hardware technician.    He built the stacks from base components as per spec and kept the online documentation up to date.    And he got to work alone.    Which he enjoyed.    None of the office politics of the guys ten basement floors up.    All Neville cared about was doing his job and saving for a house, because the money on this job was good.    Very good indeed.    His girlfriend liked that idea.    A house meant security, and Mel was very keen on security.    She wanted a family and it was only a matter of time before she brought the topic of marriage up, again.    Then there was her grandma’s ring that her mother had given him for when the time came.    All he had to do was not screw this contract up.

The job.    Yes.    Big government contract.    Serious bucks.    Neville wasn’t quite sure what it was about, but it was very secret, which is why as the projects only senior hardware engineer he took home a nice fat paycheck.    Two hours later, with the last hardware upgrade finished, he was at his desk updating the record database when his team lead phoned on the land line.    Cell phones weren’t allowed in this secure area and Neville, for all his other shortcomings, was very conscientious about security.    His personal old fashioned flip phone stayed in his backpack in his locker upstairs.

“Data centre, hardware.”    Neville answered.

“Hi Neville, it’s Claudia, data processing.”    Claudia was one of the new people after the last lot had been fired.    Neville didn’t mind her so much.    She was short, dumpy and plain, but very good at her job.    Which to Neville meant letting him do his and not interfering too much.

“Hi Claudia.    What can I do for you?” He liked Claudia.

“We’re going live at three this afternoon.”    she said without preamble.

“Oh.    I thought project said it wouldn’t be ready at your end until next month.”

“Project deadlines have been moved.”

“Everything’s ready down here.    I’d best stay in the data centre just in case something breaks.”

“You sure?    There’s the Minister of something or other coming.    Senior management is going to be there.    They’ve even brought in caterers.”    She tantalised without success.

“No.    If something breaks I want to be down here to fix it.    It takes at least ten minutes to get into the secure area.    Twenty if the lift breaks down, yet again.”    Neville replied, running his hand through a mop of dark hair.    “I’ll pass.”

On the other end of the line he heard Claudia pause. “Nev.”    That was strange, she didn’t usually shorten people’s names.    “Do you know what this project is for?”

“It’s a big government IT project in one of the biggest data centres in the world.    Muy dinero.    Big money.    Why?”    He asked.    Claudia sounded nervous. 

“Nothing.    Nothing.”    She said hurriedly and hung up.    Neville checked his watch and decided it was time for lunch.

Up in the beigely austere lunch room he found himself a solitary corner to eat a machine vended sandwich, vaguely waving greeting to several of the other groups huddled round their individual tables, most of them plugged into their smartphones like always.    Should he call Mel?    He checked his old fashioned watch.    No, she’d be in a meeting for the next hour, not worth going to his locker for.    He took a bite of his sandwich and munched thoughtfully.    He’d call her later.   

A harassed looking senior manager entered and caught his eye, hurrying over.    Neville took one look at the man’s haunted expression and stopped munching his sandwich.

“Neville.”    Mortimer Moranis, all pinstripe suit and trendy open necked shirt sat down at Neville’s table.    Heads turned briefly then turned back to their own business.    This was unusual.    Neville swallowed.

“Hi Mortimer.    We’re all ready for the big event downstairs.”    He tried to sound cheerful and failed.    Senior management didn’t seek people like him out in person unless serious shit was about to hit a massive fan.    Even then you usually got summoned into a ‘meeting’ so you could be fired in private so as not to make a fuss. Or by text. HR did that far too often.

“Sorry about this, but we’ve had to do a last minute reorganise of your team structure.”    Mortimer sat at the table.

“Okay.”    Neville said doubtfully.    He added to reassure Mortimer that whatever was going on, he was doing his part efficiently. “That’s not mission critical at the moment.    I’ve got everything under control downstairs.    Green board.”

“Erm..”    It wasn’t like Mortimer to be hesitant.    “It’s about Claudia.”

“Yeah, I think she’s got big project launch nerves.”    Neville shrugged, not understanding why Mortimer of all people sounded jittery.    “Is she okay?”

“Yes of course.”    Mortimer sounded relieved. He was also lying.    Even someone of Neville’s limited social skill set could see that.    “Just to let you know she’s been reassigned.”

Ah.    ‘Reassigned’.    Management-speak for ‘fired’.    Neville shrugged again, people came and went all the time.    He relaxed a little, this fell under a ‘Not my problem’ heading.    Then Mortimer leaned toward him and dropped his voice.    “She called you just over half an hour ago.    What did she say?”

“Isn’t our conversation on the internal call log?”    Neville said, successfully faking surprise.    All conversations were logged and monitored in a place this secure.    It went with the territory.

“Well, before she.. left.”    Mortimer left an ominous pause in the phrase.    “She scrambled her call logs.    Can you tell me if she said anything to you?”

“Not much.    Just that the project deadlines had been moved to three this afternoon and did I want to come to the big launch party.”    Neville said.    “I said I was fine but wanted to stay on duty downstairs just in case anything went wrong during the roll-out.”    He added but wondered why Mortimer had sought him out in person instead of via text or email.    “That’s all.”

“Just checking, we were worried in case there was some kind of harassment issue.”

“With Claudia?”    Neville failed to keep his face blank.    “No.”

“Fine.    Excellent.    Glad to have you on the team.”    Mortimer gave Neville a faux-hearty slap on the shoulder as he stood up and hurried out of the lunch room.

“What was all that?”    Bonnie Feynman asked, slinking over from two tables away.    Bonnie was wearing far less makeup than usual for the big day, long black dyed hair tied back in a severe ponytail, Goth tattoos hidden by roll neck sweater and long sleeves.

“Data processing team lead’s quit.”    Neville said simply.   

“Oh.”    Bonnie pouted and took her perfectly upturned nose back to her own peer group.    Nothing for her to get all bent out of shape about.    Maybe even an opportunity.    Neville could hear the whisper rattle round the lunch room, furtive eyes glanced his way.    At least more personnel changes weren’t due, yet.

After finishing his sandwich, Neville headed downstairs into the secure area and took another walk round the kilometres of servers.    Everything was fine.    No active requests on his job queue, so he opened up YouTube and sat down at the hardware bench computer to watch a livestream of the official channel with the sound muted.    A ticker with the dialogue scrolled across the screen.    “Project rapture”, apparently the projects official name featured prominently amongst the subtitles.    A project designed to spread joy around the world.    According to the dialogue ticker the method had been tested and found so successful that the UN itself had funded this massive data centre to push out the technology globally.    Oh, right.    Happy people.    That would make a nice change.

Not giving what he’d seen further thought, Neville turned his attention to more practical matters, picking up a faulty unit and testing it in case the unit could be fixed.    He did this even though there were enough sealed spares in the racks.    At a pinch he could remotely park a memory array and keep things ticking over, so even if the whole data processing team got fired this afternoon he could probably keep things functioning.    At least until Friday lunchtime.

At around four-thirty he glanced up from his work to see the YouTube livestream was over.    He’d identified the problem with the faulty unit and replaced the malfunctioning flash drive.    Now the faulty unit worked perfectly.    Feeling mildly pleased with himself, Neville placed it in an anti-static sleeve and put it in his box of emergency spares.    The land line rang.

“Hi Neville.”    It was Mortimer again.    Only there was something not quite right.    He sounded like he was high or something.

“Hi Mortimer.    We’re all good here.”    Neville said faux-cheerily.    Well, it couldn’t hurt if his ultimate boss was high as a transatlantic flight. It meant Neville wouldn’t get fired. At least today.

“Fabulous job.”    Gushed Mortimer over the phone.

“Thanks.”    Neville was taken aback.    Compliments from management?    That was a first.

“No, I mean it, well done.    Truly excellent.    Smooth with a capital S.”

“Do I get a rise?”    Neville said.    “Five hundred a month?”    He asked, steeling himself for a laughing    “No.”

“Yes of course.    Whatever makes you happy.”    The line went dead.

“That was weird.”    Neville spoke aloud, his voice sounding alien among the whispering roar of the server fans.    On a whim he took another walk around the massive banks of servers.    All green.    Not an amber or red in sight.    Oh well.    He checked his watch.    Five?    Almost time for home.    Did he want to chance rush hour?    No, he’d wait an hour or so while the all the usual commuter lemmings got out of the way.

Later, out on the freeway he found everything strangely orderly.    None of the usual road rage, lane hogging and cutting by other drivers.    Which didn’t strike him as odd at the time.    Reaching home he slowly became aware that everyone he passed was smiling.    What had happened?    Had someone put something in the water?    As he turned into the car park behind the flat he shared with Mel he noticed a woman, dreamily intent on her phone, walking straight across four lanes of traffic without looking.    Instead of the usual cacophony of horns, cars pulled to gentle halts and the drivers, instead of raising their middle fingers and fists, waved her across.    Neville was so surprised he almost rear-ended the car in front.

On the way in to the apartment building, he passed the janitor, a man reputedly never to have smiled in his life.    “Good evening!”    The shaven headed Janitor beamed with snaggled teeth before resuming his mopping.    Neville almost fell over.    He hurried past beatifically mugging people who all greeted him like a long lost friend.    This was spooky.      What the hell was going on?    He made it indoors pursued by delighted cries of    “Beautiful evening!”

Mel said nothing but threw herself at him, smothering him with passionate kisses.    “Er, hon?”    He said as she hugged him tightly, humming a happy little tune.


“What’s going on?”

“I’m just so happy that you’re back.”    Mel burrowed her tawny crowned head ecstatically into his chest.

“I’m happy to be home.    It’s crazy out there.    Everyone is, is…”    The sentence petered out.

Around midnight he crawled out of bed and staggered into the bathroom.    He stared woozily at his reflection.    What in the name of Satan’s left buttock was going on?    Everyone was acting so full of joy.    This felt incredibly weird.    As for Mel, he hadn’t found her this enthusiastic since their first few nights together.    Possibly not even then.    “I need something to eat.”    He muttered to himself and stumbled off to raid the fridge.    As always there was very little, just a half litre pack of skimmed milk and a carefully wrapped piece of slightly suspect cheese.    No bread or margarine.    Typical.

Mel was fast asleep, so he dressed as quietly as he could and snuck out of their flat and into the car park.    The midnight 7-11 clerks happily served him a hot dog and chattered away like they were his oldest best friends while he waited.    On the street outside, two Policemen in high viz yellow passed by, quietly smiling as several girls danced and gyrated ecstatically in the middle of a flower decked divider to a beat only they could hear.    A trans man was having his / its / whatever private dance party on Main street.    No one seem to care that it was raining.    Another figure was standing right on top of the building across the street, arms outstretched, palms upwards, in a gesture of rapturous rain worship.

Neville finished his hot dog and decided to take a walk in the sodium lit drizzle.    Carefully avoiding the hyperactive revellers he finally slid back between the sheets at around two.    Mel turned over in her sleep and cuddled up.    Then it was six in the morning.   

Instinctively he swung his legs out of bed and killed the alarm before it could wake her up.    A quick tepid shower and breakfast on the run saw him on site for seven forty five.    Security was briefer and much friendlier than usual.    What was it with everyone smiling?    Had he slipped into an episode of the Twilight Zone or something?    He checked his diary before switching off his phone and stowing it in his locker.

Down in the relative sanity of the server stacks, he did his usual patrol, noting that everything was working properly.    No calls flagged up on the server support job queue, which was strange.    Data processing always wanted some new stack brought online or someone on the admin team had a hangover and forgotten their password.    At lunchtime the lunch room was empty, even the offices were only sparsely populated by a few blissed out individuals.    Wasn’t this Thursday?    He’d never liked Thursdays.    Too early for Friday, too late for the midweek hump of Wednesday.

That afternoon, Neville stared at his monitors, desperately trying to remember his orientation lecture, most of which he’d simply zoned out of.    Something about using social media to transmit a signal which generated a sense of low level euphoria.    Something like that.    Words like dopamine and serotonin floated in and out of his mind.

On the way home, the opposite lane of the highway was barricaded by smiling police officers,    which was creepy in itself.    Neville slowed down and rubbernecked over the crash barrier just past a bridge.    He caught a glimpse of three mounds of plastic covered bodies in the middle of the carriageway.    Dark fluid seemed to be leaking from under them, then he was past and accelerating away.

Pulling into his street he stared upwards in horror as a grinning man swan-dived showily off a four storey building to an ecstatic crowd.    To rapturous applause the falling man pulled a full mid air somersault before hitting the pavement head first.    Neville pulled over onto the side of the road, hand to his mouth, trying not to vomit.    Oh God!  What was going on? This was terrible!

Wrung between the twin rollers of guilt and cowardice, he pulled away from the kerb and drove back to his flat.    The door was open, with enthusiastic moaning coming from the kitchen.    He looked cautiously through the gap between door and jamb.    Mel and two of her girlfriends were happily doing something unspeakable with courgettes.    Neville’s embarrassment meter flashed over into shock, making him back away, carefully closing and locking the apartments front door as he left, disgusted and red faced.    Courgettes were normally his favourite vegetable, but no longer.

Getting a tank full of petrol for free at a service station whose attendant was so euphoric he no longer cared about taking money, Neville drove as far from towns and civilisation as he could, looking for sanity, somewhere, anywhere, finally stopping at a scenic viewpoint.    In the distance, something was burning, a bright red glow at the base of a tall oily smoke column.    “No, no, no!”    Neville pounded the steering wheel and began to cry.   

Whilst he was beset by the agonies of guilt, a battered old Dodge pickup pulled over in front of his car and a heavy set baseball capped yokel got out.    “Oh God!”    Neville stared in terror as the figure shambled over to his drivers side window and tapped on it.    Shaking inside, Neville wound the window down a careful inch.

“Say friend.”    Said a gruff, friendly rural voice.    “You know what’s going on?”

“No.”    Neville said, using a soiled tissue to blow his nose.

“People acting crazy, like they’re high on drugs or sumpin?”

“Er, no.”    Neville replied.    Was this some kind of alt-right survivalist weirdo come to kill him?

“You blind?”    The voice enquired sceptically.    “Folks smiling all the time and doin’ stupid stuff.    You not noticed?”

“Well..”    Neville frantically searched for an excuse.

“My wife went a little strange yesterday, just sittin’ in her chair, smiling like she’s touched in the head.    Won’t let go of her smartphone.”    The stranger continued amiably.    “You know anything ‘bout that?”

“No.”    Neville said unconvincingly.

“I reckon someone’s been messing with the phone network.    Makin’ people go strange.”    He produced a smartphone with a heavily cracked screen.    “Mine’s only good for talking.”    The man explained.    “Not that I use it much.”

“I-I wouldn’t know.”    Neville stammered. Realisation began to creep across his mind.

“See that smoke?”    The man pointed.    “Looks like somethin’s burnin.”

“Oh, right.”

“You sure you don’t know what’s going on?    You look like you might.”

“W-Why do you think that?”

“Cause you got a Federal parking pass hanging off your mirror.    ‘Cause you’re acting real scared.”    The man scratched his stubbled chin.    “I figure you’re in denial.”

“Oh really.”    Neville fell back on unconvinced sarcasm.

“Yep.    I figure from the way you look, you might have an answer.”

“It’s not my fault! I’m just a hardware tech!”    Neville broke and began to cry again.

“Hey, hey now.”    Said the man gently.    “There’s a time for tears and it ain’t right now.    If you’re one of those people that made this craziness happen, you got a duty to set things right.”

“Why don’t you?”    Neville said, sniffing.

“I ain’t a technical type.    Wouldn’t know what buttons to press.    I don’t have no Federal access pass on my dashboard, neither.”    The man pointed out, a little too observantly for Neville’s liking.

“So what do I do?”    Wailed Neville.

“What you have to.”    Said the man.    “That’s just my opinion ‘o course.”    He turned away and went to watch the smoke rising, clambering up to stand on the rear bed of his pickup truck for a better view.    A battered sedan swerved along the road, narrowly missing the man’s pickup, spitting gravel as it clipped the roadside before disappearing off the road into some bushes.    The man on the back of the pickup truck gave Neville a pointed look.    Neville decided it was time to go home.

All the way back to his apartment, Neville felt that stern expression haunting him.    The man had seen right through him at a glance.    How could that be?    Was this some kind of Karmic justice?    A supernatural judgment for caring nothing but for his paycheck?    Thankfully Mel was asleep in bed, her friends occupying the floor wrapped up in duvets.    He tiptoed in and slunk guiltily between the sheets.    Mel opened her eyes.    “Oh hi.”    She smiled.    “You’re late.    You missed a lovely time.”    She closed her eyes and wrapped herself around him before Neville drifted off into a guilt-ridden sleep.

In the morning he slipped out of bed and left Mel sleeping before six, not bothering with breakfast.    He stopped at the lunch room vending machine for a half stale donut and coffee, noting that no-one else was around.    Two or three of the night crew were half dozing in the main office, but a short walk around showed that the remaining personnel were still in total bliss mode.    He had no idea what had happened to security.    A screen showing the ubiquitous news feed showed a happy looking female presenter laughing at plane crashes and sundry other disasters around the globe.   

Neville watched in horror as ordinarily sane individuals took crazy risks on camera and paid the ultimate price of failure.    The worst thing about it, he thought, was how happy everyone else seemed about the mayhem unfolding before their eyes.    Like everyone was competing for a Darwin Award.

Okay, he was going to have to stop the machine, but how?    If he simply cut the power to the data centre, wouldn’t someone just reboot the stacks once the power was back on?    How long would he have to get away before people began to wake up?    Would they stay happy?    Would they go crazy?    Would they find out he wrecked everything and do something horrible to him or throw him in jail with murderers and rapists?    A brief nightmare vision of being strapped into the electric chair by laughing guards passed through his mind.    He began to sweat.

Down in the familiar air-conditioned cool of the data centre he began to calm down a little.    Outside were millions, maybe billions of happy zombies out there setting the world ablaze.    Mel was one.    He was sure it was only a matter of time before she and her girlfriends…    No, that didn’t bear thinking about.    He had to bring the world to its senses, but how?    Neville didn’t have the admin codes or passwords and there was no single cable to be cut.    He could try disconnecting all the main patch cables but that would only leave the monster ready for resurrection.    The drives had to be wiped, irrevocably, the whole place wrecked, but where to begin?    If he tried deliberately setting something on fire, there would simply be a massive halon dump from the fire suppression system and he’d suffocate.

All that day he pored over the online project specifications, looking for some way to patch a cable so that the system would purge itself.    Nothing.    The off-site backups would have to go too, or someone would just reboot the insanity he’d seen outside.   

After seven solid hours he could not think of a single way to make it happen.    Then his phone rang. “Hey, how’s everybody’s favourite hardware engineer?”    It was Bonnie, newly promoted to data processing team lead.

“Busy.”    Neville lied.

“Look, everyone is so super pleased, we’re going out for a beer or three.”    Bonnie said happily.    “You wanna come?”

“I can’t.    Too much to do.”    Well, it was kind of true.

“Hey, hey.    If you can’t make it, can you hold the fort?”

“Is that okay?    What if something goes wrong?”    Neville said.    “I’m just hardware.    I don’t know about the data processing side.”

“It’s easy.    All you have to do is make sure data volumes don’t go over limit.”

“How do I do that?”

“Just open up new channels as data volumes increase.    Very intuitive.    Easy peasy.”

“What will happen if I get it wrong?”

“Not much, but it might cook the processors.    We’ve got them overclocked as it is.    Just don’t untick the auto load balancing feature.”    Bonnie didn’t seem concerned at all. 

Neville’s mind raced as he began to see the answer to his dilemma.    Overclocked processors tended to run hot.    Sometimes very hot indeed.    Maybe if he turned the data centres air conditioning up high and cascaded the data flows from server to server in sequence the processors would burn out and corrupt the whole system.    “Oh yeah.    You’ll need the admin codes and passwords.    I’ll send them direct to your terminal.    Hold on.”    Bonnie giggled.    Then his screen bleeped and there they were.    Oh.    My. God.    Neville’s jaw dropped.    Full admin access.    The keys to the castle.    “Play nice now.”    Bonnie rang off.

Neville logged on with shaky hands.    Once in he could see the whole network, all the data flows.    It was incredibly big, using massive fibre links and satellites to connect the entire world almost instantaneously.    All the special signals coded to trigger euphoria in anyone with a smartphone.   

Setting the network load balancing to manual, he waited an hour before turning the air conditioning to full and shifting data flows through two of the server stacks.    Ten seconds later the sound of multiple ‘pfft’ noises and a whiff of burning plastic announced the demise of two server units.    Two stacks, a hundred processors in each, the fans driving weak smoke trails away from fire detectors.

Carefully opening one of the rapidly cooling cabinets he saw the heat discolouration on circuit boards and flash memory units.    He pulled a circuit board.    All of the chipsets were damaged and two had literally exploded but the automatic fire alarms hadn’t gone off.    Neville gave a little shudder and looked around guiltily.

After a few minutes waiting for alarms that didn’t go off, he carefully began scheduling data flows, experimenting by shunting them across the network, setting up multiple cascades in the backup and emergency backup sites, watching displays disappear as servers went offline.    Then he repeated the process with the data sub centres placed all over the world.    He estimated three hours before the main server stacks began to run ever hotter until their processors failed.    Then the beast would die and hopefully everyone would return to normal.    He hoped.    Logging off, Neville wrote a careful resignation email and left at exactly six forty five, leaving his pass at the deserted security post.

By the time the first main stacks overloaded he was three hours drive away, ten miles north of the Canadian border.    By the time the last one went an hour later, he was heading west along a long straight gravel road north across flat Manitoban croplands.    By the time the sun went down, he was heading toward Alberta and the Rocky mountains.    Whatever happened, he was going to find somewhere very remote to hide until everyone had calmed down.

Los Endos

Swallows on the drainpipe

Inspired by recent events and the near-constant media drumbeat of fear, I would like to offer up the rough draft of this 7,500 word apocalyptic parable for reading / criticism.

“Hah!”    Liam turned the corner and looked up at the stippled brown mass, half as big as a man’s head, jammed between the gutter downpipe and eaves of his cottage.    A little black capped head poked out of a hole offset to one side at the top.    “Well I’ll be.”    Ageing blue eyes crinkled at tanned corners.    “Swallows eh?”    The little orange throated head ducked back into the nest and there was a riffling series of chirrups, tailing off into a buzz.    Liam ducked his buzz cut grey head as a streamlined form swooped past, out of the mud nest it had built.

“Maeve’ll have me hose you down.”    He said aloud to the nest, then paused.    “But then mebbe I won’t tell her.”    He added with a mischievous grin.    The smile disappeared as his cell phone rang.    He patted at various coat pockets and brought out the annoying oblong.    Another three rings, he flipped the phone open and fumble-answered the call. “Hello?    Oh hello lass.    How are the kids?    Are you coming over?”    Katherine, his eldest daughter, was checking up on him as she did every day.    “Oh shame.”    He tried to keep the insincerity out of his voice.    His suburban grandchildren were far too grown up for grandparents, so neither enjoyed each others company much.    Too many toys to get in the way.    “No, I’m outside, catching a little sun and doing a bit of gardening.”    He tried not to sigh.    “No, I’ve had my pills.    Yes, I’m feeling fine.”    He lied.    “Yes, I read that care home brochure.    I’m still thinking about it.”    Oh I’ll go to hell for lying like this, he thought as he ran through his usual lexicon of denials.    Why did the kids have to make such a drama out of everything?    Why did they fret so much?    He never recalled fussing his own parents like this.

The truth was different.    No, he wasn’t feeling fine.    Apart from all his normal aches and pains, the legacy of a robust youth, he hadn’t felt fine since last year when cancer had claimed Maeve.   

Secretly he hated these calls because they kept on reminding him that she was no longer in his life to share it.   

Of course Katherine meant well, but if only he could find a tactful way of telling her how much her persistent little reminders hurt, chipping away at his mental armour, draining his resolve to keep on going.   

The truth was that this little cottage in the sticks was a temple of sorts, a sanctuary he’d put his own breath and blood into building, an altar to the only goddess he would ever acknowledge, his Maeve, mother of three grown up daughters, all now bringing up families of their own.    Maeve, giver of their immortality, passer of the family flame.    Now just dust.    Liam clamped down on the thought just in case it made him cry.    Again.    He’d been doing too much of that lately.

They’d sweated and schemed to build this three bedroomed bungalow as their family home.    This isolated cottage had been a tumbledown wreck when they’d first bought it, before the girls were born, but the shell had been good and the roof timbers sound, so they had taken all their savings, mortgaged themselves to the hilt, and poured skill into the rest.

Once the girls had grown up and the mortgage was paid they hadn’t downsized so they could have time together, have the grandkids over at weekends, maybe spend some of the money they’d spent their working lives accumulating.    For an active retirement spent travelling the world, having a life while they still could.

As an additional luxury he’d even built a mini spa in the back outhouse, with a hot tub and sunken cold plunge for the grown ups.    Water for everyone to enjoy, with a nice big picture window for the bathers to sip wine and look out over wide green fields down to the trees beyond.

He’d just started digging out the outhouse floor when Maeve had first been diagnosed and finished the tiling and decoration the month after she passed.   

No, not ‘passed’, died.    Was no more.    Forever.    The bath house had never been used.    Without Maeve, his urge to travel faded.    Without her to share the adventure it just didn’t seem worth it.

Of course he secretly hoped there was a life after this one where they could be together again, but as the bird swooped back into the nest, he reflected on how brief the Swallows stay under his eaves would be.    One Summer, no more.    But that was all anyone had.    One life, one Summer, that was all.

Wincing, he recalled the often mischievous glint in Maeve’s yellow flecked opal eyes.    How they could lift him whenever his personal darkness came to call.    Without her, he found himself avoiding his own eyes in a mirror, just in case he saw her reflection because sometimes, no not sometimes, mostly, the loss was more than he could bear.

“Sorry Kath, missed that.    I was looking at the Swallows.”    He apologised to an urgent entreaty to think about selling up and spending the money on a care home where he could be looked after, properly.    Looked after my arse!    He could no more sell this place than flap his arms and fly like one of the nesting Swallows.    This was his waiting room for God, not some awful place being patronised by disinterested staff with only fading strangers to talk to.    But instead of saying what he really felt, he told her brightly,    “They’ve nested between the eaves and the downspout.”   

His face creased in annoyance at what Kath said next.    Hose down the nest?    Because they might take a couple of thousand off the sale price?    What kind of man did she take her old Dad for?    He’d never consciously harmed another living thing in his life and wasn’t going to start now. “I’ll think about that.”    He said carefully, his feelings about selling up ossifying into boneheaded resistance.    Kath could nag all she wanted.    Here he stood, and this was where he would fall.

Of course he’d tried not answering her calls last month, but after the Police had turned up on his doorstep after two refused visits by ‘Elder care’ workers, he knew that strategy wasn’t going to play.    She didn’t get that from her Mum, he grinned.      I’m the stubborn bugger in this family.   

“Kath, if you’re going to be like that, no.”    he finally dug his heels in, two could play the stubborn card.    “No I won’t hurt the Swallows.    They’ve done me no wrong.”    on the other end of the call, Kath’s cajoling voice took on an unpleasant edge.

“Look love, I’m fine.    I miss your Mum, we all do, but if I sold, I’d be betraying everything we built our lives around.    So long as I’m here I’m keeping her memory alive, that keeps me alive too.    And the Swallows help.”    he hadn’t planned to be short with her, but his thoughts had flowed straight off his tongue.    The other end of the line fell silent and bleeped to tell him she’d rung off.

Well that was a turn up.    A burring of wings and chittering chirrups past his ears announced the exit of one of the parent birds.    “All right, all right.”    Liam backed away from the nest and turned to look at the front lawn.      Did it need a cut today?    He stuffed the now-silent phone in the left hand pocket of his gardening coat and made his way to his storage shed were all he kept all the garden tools.

Sniffing at the light breeze he glanced up at the cumulus punctuated sky and smiled a little.    It didn’t feel like rain and the forecast hadn’t mentioned any for the next week, so maybe a quick run over his billiard table sward as a tidy up, and the Berberis hedge might benefit from a once over this weekend.

Checking the electric mower charge, he made sure the grass collector bag was empty.    Sandra, his youngest daughter and her husband, Spencer, had bought it for him when his old petrol mower had given up the ghost.    Something about a carbon footprint they’d said.    Whatever one of those was.    Probably something they’d seen on the telly or internet, two things he’d never really been interested in.    You got enough bad news without exposing yourself to more.

Nice lad Spencer, a bit other worldly, but he meant well. Still, the mower worked well enough on light cuts, but it didn’t cope well with long grass, nor could the battery powered strimmer that had come with it.    Still, it gave Liam an excuse to get out into the garden regularly, which had always been his exclusive domain.    Subject to pronouncements from Maeve on what bush would go where or what rose needed trimming.    But there would be no more of those, would there?    He felt a tightness clutch briefly at his chest.    Closing his eyes, Liam breathed deeply until the feeling passed.

For two hours afterwards he walked the little mower up and down, buzz cutting a neat geometric pattern in the well tended grass.    Nodding with satisfaction at the result, he emptied the grass box and added the last cuttings to the compost heap behind the shed.    Then walked out to the front to retrieve the mower.    Then he paused and partly closed his eyes, letting the world rotate around him.    Something primeval stirred in his hindbrain, telling him all was not well.    Very wrong.    What was it?

On impulse, he walked down his ten metre long drive to the road and stood between the gateposts, a scruffy sweat-shirted statue, grass stained and grubby, listening intently.    The road in front of his house was empty.    Well no surprise about that.    It was a Summer Tuesday, and the school run Mums and Dads that used this little lane as a rat run would be elsewhere.    Summer holidays, running around in town, shepherding their precious cargoes between shopping centres and various amusements.

Liam recalled his own childhood summers.    Shorts, Wellington boots and hand sized fishing nets on bamboo canes.    A bicycle if you were lucky.    Games made up on the spur of the moment with rules that changed every ten minutes.    Eating unripe apples fresh off a tree and spitting out the sour sharp flesh.      Unsupervised long walks between friends houses without a grown up in sight.    His thin lips creased lean features into a quiet nostalgic smile.

Liam sighed and waited a little longer.    A solitary half an hour later, he turned around, shaking his head.    Must be a problem up the road.    He returned to the house to make himself a solitary cup of tea and sit out in the back garden to watch the Swallows.    Off in the distance he could hear a dog kicking up a fuss, but it wasn’t so much a bark, more of a moan, a grieving sound.    Half howl, like a heart was being broken.    On and on, polluting the Summer breezes with it’s sad refrain.

Around five he went indoors to make himself a sandwich for tea.    Liam never cooked much nowadays, which kept the kitchen clean and tidy, but he was lucky that his small vegetable patch was fertile enough to produce fresh vegetables and salads from Spring through to much of Autumn, so that kept the shopping bills down.    Today’s treat was canned Salmon dressed in malt vinegar on home baked bread with thinly sliced home grown cucumber.   

Not that he’d ever been a great cook, but a trained Engineer could put his hand to most things, and baking was fun in it’s own small way.    Since Maeve had gone he’d simplified his life and kept the grief at bay by taking each task and small pleasure one thing at a time.    He’d made a form of studied elegance from his life, and never thought much about his neighbours.    Nice enough people so it seemed, but he was never much of a conversationalist, so they had lost interest after a couple of encounters and let him be.

“Book, book, book.”    He muttered softly to himself, carrying the small sandwich bearing plate into the dining room.    Liam liked reading.    So much so that the blankly looming fifty plus inch television Maeve had pestered him into buying was never switched on.    Never anything on that he cared to watch anyhow.    Placing his plate on the coffee table, he went to the bookshelves that dominated one wall and glanced along the titles.    Ah yes.    He selected a hardback and returned to his chair in the corner to indulge in his favourite sin, reading whilst eating.

As evening fell, he closed the curtains and carried on reading by lamplight until just before midnight.    Another little ritual.    Go outside, close the gate, lock the doors and set the alarm before going to bed.    All these he did, all the time looking around for what his instincts told him was missing.    The lights were off next door and the road remained silent.    Oh well, time for another few pages to see him off to sleep.

For a change, Liam slept through until seven, a rare event in itself at sixty eight years of age.    He swung sleep stiffened legs out of bed, deliberately not looking at the empty side before getting dressed in gardening clothes and going down for his ritual cup of tea.    De-activate alarm, note the morning dampness already drying on the small patio where he generally broke his fast in the warmer months.    Sniffing at the freshness of the morning air, he sat down and watched the Swallows swooping in and out of their mud nest.    Weathered features creased at the far off dog still barking.    Didn’t those people care about their animals?    Poor thing.

Closing his thoughts to the plaintive baying, Liam busied himself with the dozens of little jobs needed to keep his garden in tip-top condition.    Pruning, watering, tidying and sweeping kept him busy until lunchtime when he realised he’d heard no traffic at all this Wednesday morning.    Walking to his front gate, he opened it and walked the few steps to where he could see next doors imperfectly cut front lawn.    Should have got a cylinder mower, not that silly plastic thing they had, no wonder their grass was a mess of plantains, clover and weeds.    A few paces more past the end of the hedge and he could see something lying outside their front door.    Overhead there were a few big black birds circling, and as he watched, the black and white motley of a magpie landed on the object, digging its beak down greedily until it came up stained red and flapped away carrying something golf ball sized.

Putting his natural reticence aside he cautiously walked through their front gate to the sacklike object.    Breath froze in his throat.    It was the father, remaining eye staring up at the sky with an expression of horror, lifeless hand clutched at his throat, a thin line of dried foam around his mouth.    “Christ!”    Liam swore and tried not to be sick.    With what remained of his wits, he noticed the front door of the house was partly open.    Inside was the unmistakeable shape of a woman lying on the floor, mercifully face down, grey silky dressing gown splayed around her.   

Their three normally boisterous children were nowhere to be seen or heard, which was worrying.    Throwing his jacket over the poor man’s face, Liam hurried back home to get his phone, heart pounding, throat tight.    As he picked up the phone, he forced himself to calm down.    “You’re no good to them if you frighten yourself to death.”    he chided himself, mind silently shouting his panic into some sort of order.    Dialling the emergency number he took a deep breath.    “Hello?”

“You have reached the Emergency number.    Press one for Police, two for Ambulance and three for Fire,”    He carefully keyed the one.    “Thank you for calling the Police service emergency number.    We are experiencing a high volume of calls at this time.    Please leave a message and a number you can be contacted at after the bleep.”    The line bleeped.

“Hello.    This is Liam Collins.”    Liam reeled off his cell phone number.    “There are two dead people next door.    They have three children who don’t seem to be around.”    He carefully gave their address and conscientiously logged off.

Returning next door, Liam found a bigger tarpaulin in their garage, covered the man’s whole body against the predations of crows and magpies, then went to the front gate to await the arrival of official help.    After half an hours fruitless standing around, uncomfortable in the company of corpses, he dialled the emergency number again.    This time he requested the Ambulance service from the automated call handling system.    After that the fire brigade.    Off in the distance he could see two columns of thick smoke rising into the still afternoon warmth.    The emergency services must have their hands full to be this late.

Liam walked to and fro to the deserted road, growing increasingly frustrated with the wait.    Was the system down?    What was going on?    He got his first inkling when he walked around the house into his neighbours back garden.    The ugly sight of three children, hanging from a garden swing, ankles turning slowly, driven by the twist in the washing line around their necks.    He turned away, horrified at the sight of faces darkened with blood, eyes bulging, dark tongues sticking out.

“Oh dear God.”    Liam said, fell to his knees and vomited onto the grass.    Staggering to unwilling feet he stared with horrified eyes at the dangling corpses, uncertain as to whether he should cut them down or leave that grisly task for the Police.    There was certainly nothing he could do with no medical training.    He tried the emergency services number again, and found himself screaming “Answer me!    I’ve got three dead children hanging in the back garden of…”    His voice trailed off into sobs and the call bleeped    “This mailbox is full, please try again later.”

Infuriated, Liam stumbled into his own garage, car keys in hand.    If the emergency services weren’t answering the phone he’d go and bloody well find someone who could help.    How he would do this he had no idea, but he was going to damn well try.

Down in the town three miles down the road all the streets were empty of people.    A cat lay curled up in the middle of the road, enjoying the sun warmed tarmac, moving only reluctantly as his little grey SUV nosed toward it.    A Jack Russell terrier standing in a roadside window stared at his car, yapping soundlessly as Liam drove slowly on.    “What the hell?”    Liam found himself repeating as his neck twitched this way and that, seeking out some form of human life.

A cloud of big carrion birds circled in a the sky to his right and a whiff of hot metal and burning rubber flicked across his nostrils.    Pulling to a halt at a crossroads, he wound down the window and stared.    Down a side street, an Ambulance was burning.    He only recognised it because the word ‘Ambu’ remained on a yet-unburned section of electric yellow and blue bodywork.    No sign of the Police or Fire services.    No wonder they weren’t answering.

Reluctant to get out of his car, he slipped into gear and moved on.    There was nothing he could do here.    No-one to help.    What had happened?    Rather that explore further he went home and closed his gate behind him.

Trembling and ashen he collapsed into a garden chair he had set up so he could watch the Swallows comings and goings.    He rubbed his jaw fretfully and glanced at the little mud nest jammed between downpipe and eaves.   

The Swallows seemed to be managing all right.    There were bees in the Lavender bushes and Fuchsias.    The natural world was carrying on without a seeming care, so what had happened to the people?

Liam abruptly stood up.    Help wasn’t coming, the burning Ambulance told him that much.    There was nothing left to be done but what he thought was the decent thing.    Retrieving a spade and heavy gloves from his garden shed, he went next door and began to dig.

By late afternoon, he was tired to his bones but dragged the husbands body on the tarpaulin into the shallow pit he’d been able to dig.    Swatting intrusive crows away with the flat of his shovel, he cut the washing line to let the three little corpses thump to the ground.    Then he went back for the wife, reflecting how awful she looked, eyes wide and staring, a rictus of horror frozen on immobile features.   

Covering the pit with the tarp, he did something he hadn’t down for over a year, he prayed.    Please God, stop whatever is happening.    People are dying.    Please let it stop.    They didn’t deserve this.    And when he was finished sheltering the bodies under the earth, like all strong men do, he let unfettered tears run down his cheeks.

Leaving his shovel as an upright grave marker, Liam returned home.    He was still somewhat surprised that the power was still on and that the phone had a dial tone.    “Oh god.”    the girls.    He dialled Katherine’s cell number only to get a busy tone.    Same with Mary.    After a heart stopping few minutes, he nerved himself to contact Sandra.    Someone on the other end picked up, but all he could hear was frightened breathing.    “Sandra? It’s Dad.    Sandra?    Answer me love.”

“H-hello, Dad?”    it was Spencer.    Liam had never been more relieved.

“Spencer lad.    Get Sandra and your baby to my place.    Can you do that?”

Spencer sounded terrified.    “I-I don’t know.”

“Right.”    Liam found some more steel in his soul.    “Then I’ll come and get you.    Pack a bag lad.    Is Sandra there?”

“Yes, but she’s not well.    Neither of us are feeling very well…”    Spencer’s voice tailed off.

“Stay there, I’m coming.    Have you heard from Kathy or Mary?”

“I-I think Sandra’s talked to them.”

“In the last hour?”

“Um… I don’t know..”    Another voice, more of a snivel, made it’s presence known.   

“Put her on Spencer.”    he heard a muted sound of agreement.    “Sandra my darling, can you talk?”    he was answered by a sniffle.    “Get a bag packed, I’m going to take you somewhere safe.”

“Thanks Dad.    Oh Dad, it’s awful.”

“I know, I’ve been out.”    he spoke to her softly.    “Now do what your old Dad tells you and we’ll all be golden.    Can you do that?”

“S”    she snivelled.

“Okay.    Have you heard from Kathy and Mary?”

“Yes.”    this time Sandra’s response was stronger.

“I’ll get you and Spencer first.    While I’m on my way over, you tell them to pack a bag and hunker down, got that?    Just say Dad’s coming to get them.    Might be a bit of a squash in my little car, but if we’re sensible we’ll manage.    Have you got power and water?”

“Yes Dad, the lights flicker a bit, but the taps are still running and our toilets flush.”

“Stay where you are and keep a lookout of the window.”    he advised.    “I’m on my way.    See you in about half an hour.”

“Thanks Dad.”    Sandra sniffed.

“Right.    See you shortly love.”    Liam said and rang off.

Alone on the road, he elected to drive the back roads to the modern starter housing development where Sandra and Spencer had set up home.    Over on the towns bypass there were clouds of smoke and a tang of burning rubber and something else on the wind.    Off in the distance he thought he saw flashing blue and red lights, yet otherwise the normal noise of humanity was muted.    Still, it paid to be safe.

As he passed down the street of the cul-de-sac where his youngest daughter lived, he could see the multicoloured flickering of television screens, but still no people.    Cars parked in drives, even something that looked like a…    Liam drove a little faster until he arrived at his destination.   

Spencer came out first, hair and eyes wild, wearing stained t-shirt and shorts, face white with fear, head twitching this way and that as though looking for an invisible enemy.    He was followed by Sandra carrying their baby in it’s little carry cot, in another hand she carried a bulging black rubbish bag bouncing off her leggings, presumably full of baby care stuff.

“Come on, throw that in the back.    Sandra, you go on the back seat with the baby.    Spencer, I need you up front.”    Liam ordered.    Unlike their usual complaints and bickering, everyone did exactly as they were told.    Which was, Liam thought, surprising.    Swinging himself back into the drivers seat, He keyed the central locking and set off back the way he had come.    Spencer and Sandra stayed mute, eyes full of fright, fussing over their little boy, who seemed totally unaffected by his parents terror, gurgling and chuckling as if nothing was amiss.

Once through his own front gate and pulled to a halt, Liam finally broke silence.    “Can either of you tell me what’s been going on?”

They stared at him in disbelief.    “You don’t know?”    Sandra said.

“No.    All I know is that my neighbours and their children are dead.    I had to bury them in their back yard to keep the crows off.”

“Oh my God…”    Sandra put her hand to her mouth, red-rimmed eyes staring at him.

“Spencer?”    Liam asked.

“Haven’t you been watching the news?”    Spencer said.

“You know I think it’s a waste of time.    People gassing off about things they don’t understand.    I don’t watch it unless the sports are on, and not even then.”

“But, but…”    Spencer gasped in disbelief.    Sandra looked at her father pityingly.

“I’ve been too busy in the garden.    Or reading a book.”    He unlocked the car doors.    “Okay.    Everybody out.    I’ll get the kettle on.”

“We can’t stay here.”    Spencer declared.    “I won’t live with a denier.”

“Denier?”    Liam said.    “Well Spencer me lad.    If that’s the way you feel, you can bugger off, but Sandra and the baby stay.    They’ll be safe here.”

“Safe?”    Spencer scoffed.    “With a man who just buried his neighbours?”

“Spencer, sometimes I wonder about you.    I don’t know what killed that sweet young couple, but I don’t want to have to do the same for you.”

“Don’t you threaten me!”    Spencer’s voice went up an octave.


“You brought us here to kill us!”    Spencer’s eyes were wide and vacant, he seemed to sway on his feet like a drunk.

“Sandra.    Get the baby inside, use our spare bedroom.    Me and your husband need a little chat.”    Liam said, fighting down his own rising panic.    “No-one’s killing anyone.    And I’ve seen enough death for one day.    Come on.”    Liam opened the front door and shooed a fretful Sandra indoors.    “Not you.”    he put his hand up to Spencer.    “Follow me.”    he shut the front door and locked it.    Spencer wavered.    “Come on lad, I need you to see something.    We can have a cup of tea in a bit.”    Liam led the way to the back garden.    “Sit down and watch the Swallows.”    Spencer, stained tee-shirt flapping in the breeze, obediently sat down on one of the garden chairs to face the side of the house, staring at the wall.    Keeping a careful distance, Liam sat on the patio wall opposite.

“They’ll be ready to migrate again in another six weeks”    He said in conversational tones.    “All the way to Africa.    Thousands of miles across land and sea.    When the babies are all fat and ready.    I think there’s three in the nest.”

“Spencer.    I can see you’re frightened.”    he continued.    “But you and Sandra are safe here.    Take a breath.”    he added, trying to look as unthreatening as he could.    “Tell me all about it.”    he added gently.    “We’ve all had a bad day and I don’t want to make it any worse.    Please?”

Spencer sat in the shadow of the house, face closed in as though struggling to get his words out.    “We have to watch the news.”    he blurted, grabbing for his cell phone.

“Why?”    Liam said gently.    “Who says?”    He tried to look Spencer in the eye, but his son in laws gaze kept twitching every which way.

“We have to.”

“What’s it about?    You can tell me.”    Liam glanced up as the door to the kitchen opened, Sandra stood in the doorway, big eyed and right hand to her mouth.    “Come on Love.    Sit with Spencer, you’ve both had a bit of a fright.    Put the phone down.    I’ll call Kath and Mary when we’re done here.    Is the tea ready?”

At the mention of tea, Sandra brightened and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with three mugs on a tray.    Placing the tray on the patio table she sat down, clinging on to Spencer’s arm.    “The baby seems all right.”    Liam clumsily tried to get a conversation going.    Sandra nodded slowly, nervously watching her father as though he’d grown horns and a tail.    “Those babies sound as though they’re doing well.”    he added, thumbing at the nest to a chorus of hungry chirrups.    A parent bird swooped in.    “Wish I could judge distance like those birds.”

Sandra and Spencer seemed to relax a little.    Spencer’s fingers began to reach for his cell phone.    “Leave it be lad.    We’ll call the girls in a bit.”    Liam repeated.

“Who built the nest?”    Spencer said after a few awkward moments.

“The Swallows.”    Liam smiled.    “Funny that.    They can fly thousands of miles and build cosy nests, and we get twitchy if we don’t have our cell phones on all the time.    Makes you wonder at how clever we’re not.”   

At this, Spencer’s face relaxed a little and he gave out a half chuckle.    “Homo Stultus.    Modern man.    Lost without his gadgets.”    beside him Sandra gave her father a grateful look.    The cycle of panic had finally been broken.

“I’m a gardener nowadays.”      Liam said,    ”Latin’s something I never really learned.    Now show me some seedlings and I’m on familiar ground.”

“I said we’re not thinking man, we’re stupid man.”    Spencer explained with his more usual certainty.    “Drop me in the wilderness and I’m less talented than a monkey.”

“That would account for some of what’s going on.    I never watch television and my cell phone doesn’t do all the fancy stuff.    Today I’ve seen Ambulances aflame, everyone is dead or in hiding, can either of you tell me what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?”    Sandra seemed amazed.

“Know what?”    Liam shrugged at his daughter.

“I’ve forgotten.”    Her face clouded.    “We’re supposed to be staying indoors.    Something bad is happening.”

“That’s true enough.    Everyone is in hiding or setting fire to the emergency services.”    Liam reached over and picked up his mug.    “What are we supposed to be afraid of?”

A confused expression crept onto Spencer’s face.    “I can’t remember.”    He recovered.    “That’s weird isn’t it?    We just know we’re supposed to be afraid, but I can’t tell you why or what of.”    He frowned and exchanged puzzled glances with Sandra, who nodded.    “Thanks for coming to pick us up by the way.”      He added.

“Thanks Dad.”    she said, features gradually relaxing into her more usual enigmatic smile. Good.    Sandra was back.    They seemed to be breathing more normally.    Liam sighed an inner sigh.   

“Now we’ve got to see what’s happening with Kath and Mary.”    Liam said and took out his old fashioned flip phone.    “I’ll do it.    You two have been through enough.”    he waved them to stay seated.    “Keep your phones off.    Leave the TV off.    It’s something to do with that.”

“Yes Dad.”    Sandra giggled.    Liam gave her a gentle smile.    Welcome back love.    He nodded approval to Spencer.    “Go get yourself a shower, you’ll feel better.    You know where the towels are?”    Sandra nodded.    “Now finish your tea and we’ll see what’s what.”    Sandra led Spencer into the house, both a little shell shocked, but not as bad as they had been.   

He pulled up Kath’s number again and listened to the dial tone.    At least that and the power was still working.

“Dad!    Dad!    We’re been so worried!”    Katherine picked up on the fourth ring.

“Everyone is frightened to death love.    I had to go rescue Sandra and her husband.”

“We’ve been told to stay at home.”

“Why?    It’s a bit dodgy out there, and I’d avoid main roads like the plague, but we’re settling down now.    Everyone here’s fine”    Liam said calmly, listening to the panic in his eldest daughter’s voice.    He grimly declined to mention the bodies he’d had to bury next door.    “Who’s coming up with this stuff?”

“It’s all over the newsfeeds!”    Katherine sounded as though she was about to trip over into hysteria.    “The government are saying it!”

“Are they?    I never listen to what they say.”    Liam scoffed.

“Dad!”    She protested.    “You’re not taking this seriously!”

“Katherine.”    he said in slow, dangerous tones.    “I’ve seen people taking this seriously.    They’re the ones hanging their children and setting fire to the emergency services.”

“You haven’t!”

“Young lady.”    He put on his sternest voice.    “I have just had to bury my next door neighbours, something a man should never have to do.    That young couple and their three children.    I think you met them last year.”

“Marie-Lynn and Oscar?”

“I could never remember their names.    I spent all morning calling the emergency services and getting nothing, so instead of leaving them to the crows and foxes, I dug a hole and said a prayer over them.    God help me.”

“You did what!?”

“I found the young man lying dead in his front drive with a magpie picking at hi- him.    His wife was dead inside and their two little boys and little girl were hanging from the garden swing.    No idea what killed them and I’ve a notion they did it to themselves.”    Liam saw no reason to mince his words, although he did gloss over the Magpie plucking out that poor man’s eye.    Kath was in a bad enough state without making it worse.    “Now are you coming to me or do I have to come and get you?”

“N-no.    Bruce will drive us.”

“Stay off the main roads and keep clear of big towns.    Oh, and bring some goodies with you.    And whatever cans and dried stuff you’ve got in the cupboard.    Have you talked to Mary?”

“She’s coming to us.”

“Well when she gets to you let me know.    Looks like I’m going to need all the room I can make.”

“We’ll be fine here Dad.”

“You’re in the suburbs.    Have you checked out of the window and seen the smoke?”    He warned.

There was a pause, then a subdued “Oh.”

“See you in a couple of hours.    Stay off the dual carriageways, use secondary roads.    Switch off your phones.”    Liam added.    “Love you.”

“Love you too Dad.    Bruce will take care.”

“See he does.    I’m doing my special pasta sauce tonight.    A big batch.    Bring your appetites.    And a tent.”

“We’ve still got Bruce’s old camper van, and sleeping bags.”    Katherine offered.

“That will do nicely.    When is Mary due?”

“Any time Dad.”

“See you when you get here.”    Liam was very careful to use ‘when’, not ‘if’.   

“Yes Dad.”

“Am I nagging?”    He teased to see if his daughter was on the line, not the frightened shadow who had answered.

“Yes Dad.”

“Good.”    He allowed himself an inner sigh of relief.    “I’ll nag you some more when you get here.”

“Thanks Dad.    I mean it.”

“That’s good.    See you this evening.”    Liam rang off.    He could hear the shower tinkling inside.    “I need some gardening time.”    There was early fruit to be picked and he’d dig some potatoes in case there wasn’t enough pasta.    Always something to do.

When he tramped his cargo into the kitchen he could hear Spencer in the front room.    His son in law, now more his usual self, was fiddling with the television.    “It doesn’t work.”    He said like having a non-working television was an offence.

“I borrowed the fuse from the plug when the kettle broke last year.    Never watch it myself.”    Liam kicked his boots off before entering the room.    “Read a book why don’t you?”    He gestured at the wall filling bookshelves.

“Don’t you have Wi-fi?”

“No.    Don’t have social media either.    Just my old cell phone.    Besides, there’s no data signal this side of the hill,    Just voice.    It’s a bit of a dead spot.”    Why was Spencer so anxious?

“B-but how do you keep up to date?”

“What with?    We’re too far from the coast for tidal waves.    The closest nuclear or chemical plant is over fifty miles away.    Look lad.    I’m a pensioner with a few quid set aside.    Too old to fight any wars and I’ve paid a lifetime of taxes, plus I pay private health insurance, so apart from keep up my drivers licence and paying the bills I don’t have much to do with the news.    And I know the world is daft enough without any help from me.”    Liam said flatly.    “Now go pick up a book and take a breather for heaven’s sake.    Put on some music, I’ve got some old stuff you might like.    Ask Sandra.”    He turned around brusquely and returned to the kitchen to wash his freshly dug potatoes.

Outside as shadows lengthened he could hear a familiar regular subsonic beat.    What was that?    He stepped out onto the patio to see a helicopter in camouflage passing half a mile or so away over the trees.    He watched it until it flew out of sight.    So the Army was out was it?    Things must be bad then.    “What was that?”    Sandra stood in the kitchen doorway, biting her lip.

“Just the Army I think.    Went over that way toward the main road.”    He heard a heavier whup-whup noise heading directly toward them and the sound became deafening as a much bigger machine, this time with a camouflaged backhoe loader suspended underneath, flew right over the house.    Liam gave them a cheerful wave.    Sandra shrunk back inside the house.   

Someone must have seen him because the first machine reappeared ten minutes later and landed in the meadow outside his hedge.    A helmeted figure disembarked and trotted up to the boundary, eyeing the sharp thorned Berberis hedge.    “You all right?”    A young woman’s voice bellowed.

“Fine thanks.”    Liam told her.    “If you fancy some tea you’ll have to come round the front.    What’s going on?”

“National emergency.”    she said by way of explanation.

“I’d gathered that.”

“Have you got a phone number?”    the woman bellowed over the still running rotors.

“Sure.    What for?”

“We might need some help.    We may need volunteers.”

“Oh, right.    Why are you asking me?”

The woman doffed her helmet, revealing handsome coffee skinned features a little sweat stained from prolonged wearing of headgear.    “You’re upright and you didn’t run away and hide.”    She said in more conversational tones, favouring him with a relieved smile.    “We need some people who can keep their heads, as the rest of the population seem to have lost theirs.”

“I’m a bit pushed for space.    I’ve got the rest of the family coming over.”    He hedged.

“Okay.    I’ll check with regional command.    Hang on there, I’ll be back in a minute.”    She put her helmet back on and walked back to the helicopter.    Another flew over, and another two carrying heavy equipment toward the bypass.    The woman returned.    “Major Gwendolen Sparks.    Regional Rescue Command.”    She took off a glove and stuck her open hand over the low hedge.   

Liam shook it.    “Liam Collins.”    He added.    “Retired Mechanical Engineer.”

“Pleased to meet you Liam.”    She seemed more relieved to see him than he to see the Army.    “We’d like to set up here.”

“You’re welcome, but it’s not my field.”

“We’ll bring in our own equipment.    But we need a place with friendly natives.”

“Next door is empty.”    Liam gestured at the next door cottage.    “The family that lived there have… gone away.    It’s open.    What happened to the Emergency services?”    Either side of Liam’s thorn hedge, they walked around the line between Liam’s garden and the field.

“We don’t know.    Most of the larger towns and cities are off limits at the moment, can’t tell you anything more.”

“Can’t or won’t?”    Liam probed.

“No-one knows anything.    We’ve been told to clear the roads and I need a place to set up a local command post for senior staff.    This big field looks dry and there’s no livestock.    The nearest two farmhouses are empty.    In one we found the farmer and his whole family dead.    It’s pretty grim all round.”    She lithely vaulted the field gate into the road, landing like a cat.    Liam felt a pang of jealousy.    Oh to be young and fit.

“I had to bury my neighbours.”    Liam admitted.

“So you’ve got a strong stomach then?”

“Empty.    I left my breakfast on the ground when I saw what happened to their three children.”

“You say you buried them?    On your own?”    She seemed surprised.

“I’m not dead yet.”    Liam contrived to sound affronted.    She seemed to tense.    Then he flashed her a tiny grin.    The moment passed.

“They’ve a gate into the field at the back.”    He followed her out onto the road and pointed at next door.

“Good.”    She put her hand to her helmet and there was a crackle of conversation.    “I’ve got senior personnel inbound.    Do you mind waving them in?”    She said, as they walked up the short gravel drive, boots crunching.

“No, no.    I’ve got my own family coming.    It’ll be a bit of a crush, but we’ll make do.”    Liam showed her the way through to the back garden.

“I see what you mean.”    She nodded at the mound of turf and upright shovel.    “I’ll get a detail to move the bodies somewhere more appropriate.    Okay.    Thanks for that.”

“I’ll go direct traffic then.”

“Thank you Mister Collins.    We’ll drop you a few ration packs if you run short.”    She easily vaulted the gate and jog trotted back toward her helicopter.    As she approached the rotors sped up, and by the time she swung into the cab, the noisy machine was straining the bounds of gravity.    Liam saw the Major wave from above as it wheeled overhead and waved back.    Spencer and Sandra arrived on the road.

“Was that the Army?”    Spencer demanded.    He was freshly washed and wearing clean clothes.

“They’ll be setting up in the field for a while.    I’ve been asked to wave them in.”    Liam replied.    “Besides, Kath and Mary will be coming that way and I don’t want them stopped.”

“Bloody cheek.”    Spencer said.    “Coming here with their guns.”   

“They’ve come to help, not to shoot anyone Spencer, do grow up.”    Liam said in mild exasperation.    “All they want to do is set up a supply base to drop stuff in and go clear the roads.    I doubt if they’ll be here more than a couple of days.”

“Fascists.”    Snarled Spencer.    “They can go elsewhere.    We should protest.”

“Spencer.”    Liam looked his son in law up and down critically.    “People are dropping like flies.    Everything is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re fretting about a few uniforms and guns.    I’m happy to accept any help we can get.    If you don’t like it, go inside and read a book, help Sandra with the baby or go watch the Swallows.    Just don’t get in the way.”

“Well if that’s your attitude.”    Spencer snapped and stomped back up the driveway into the house.   

Sandra stayed by her father.    “Sorry Dad.”

“Nice lad, but not the sharpest tool in the box.”    Commented Liam and shook his head.    “Go on love.    Calm him down while I make sure the Army doesn’t end up in the wrong driveway.”    She nodded bob cut mousy hair and hurried after the offended Spencer.

The command staff didn’t arrive until mid-evening as helicopter after helicopter landed supply containers into the field.    A young soldier carrying an assault rifle dropped out of the rear of a truck and politely tapped Liam on the shoulder.    “I’ll take over sir.”    A second trooper took up station the other side of the driveway.

“Oh.    Right.    Cheers.”    At that moment Liam saw Bruce’s camper van cautiously arrive at the top of the hill, he stretched out his arm and waved frantically.    In response the van moved forward slowly until it was level with his drive.    Liam opened his gate.    “Welcome to the circus.”    he joked as a stunned looking Bruce wound down the window at the hive of uniformed activity beyond.

“Hello Dad.    Showing off are we?”    Katherine said from the passenger seat.    Now offline she had cheered up considerably.

“You know me love.    I like a bit of company.”    he laughed, genuinely pleased to see his family in good spirits.    “Excuse the mess.”    Up the road, the first soldier waved in a staff vehicle.    Liam opened his own front gate.    A mute Bruce drove the old camper van in.    Liam breathed again and closed his gate behind the careworn vehicle.    His family was safe until the craziness passed and they could all go home again.    The Army would do their job and go.    The Swallows would fly away and return next Summer.    Nothing else mattered.   

An End

Post published

Waiting game again. The second proof copy of “The Cat Tree and other stories” has been despatched and will reach me by the end of the month. This should finally mark the end of the writing and editing process so I can move forward into the distribution and marketing phases.

While the interminable wait goes on, I will fill the unforgiving minutes between then and now with a little motorcycle riding, before the weather really closes down in October. Did try yesterday, but when I passed the eighty kilometre marker, what had been merely a little moisture in the air turned into enough rain to make the roads damp, so, being a fair weather rider, I beat a hasty retreat down the Island Highway home to Victoria, moisture rapidly beading my visor and the front of the fairing, as you can see in the attached video. Apologies for the lack of sound, but it’s my first time using this particular camera and I’d managed to mute the microphone.

Now I’ve ridden in far worse, everything from snow, hail, torrential rain and cold that put a quarter inch breastplate of ice onto my leathers. Cold that bit through three layers of gloves within a mere twenty miles so that I had to warm my gloves on the cylinder head. The worst of those times was over thirty five years ago, but now that I am over sixty summers, my taste and tolerance for such saddle bound masochism is much diminished.

Today my wife has the car for a lunch date with friends. Looking out of my office window, I see we have sunshine, which after I finish work today at lunchtime I intend to take full advantage of.

New story

Well, there’s another 4300 word submission accepted by Leg Iron books. This time for their Halloween compilation. That will make three stories I’ve placed with them in under twelve months, which isn’t bad. The money isn’t an issue and I’m never going to make a fortune writing, but it’s fun.

I seem to have struck a chord with my semi-comical little narratives although if they have a major fault it is this; when I start a story I often have no idea where it is going to end up. My narratives often go wandering into the weeds and get lost somewhere in the long grass. I’ve tried planning, laying out careful plot lines but the thing I really enjoy is romping off to play where my wild ideas are. My inner child likes to prod at things with a stick, lift the rocks to see what’s underneath. I also like to take the odd sideswipe at PC ‘culture’. Which amuses me. Although I often don’t know where to stop.

For example, my latest submission began life under the working title ‘The Coat’ but after the plot got lost in the woods at around the four thousand word mark, I had to send out a search party to bring the narrative back to a timely conclusion or it would still be wandering in circles. When I was done, the tale had been tidied up and shortened with a new title; “Good here, innit?” which makes sly fun of extreme ‘hate speech’ laws in a highly repressive society. And that revelation is as much as I am going to give away. Kevin Hillman at Leg Iron books liked it right away, which shows that we share a certain macabre sense of humour. There is another similar work in progress comic short story with the working title; “Three benches and a bicycle rack” which is as much as I’m giving away here. Let’s just say it will be funnier than “A Coelacanth in the bathroom”, I think.

Regarding promised videos; I’m having a few issues with glitchy sound. When I record a video, I like to do my readings in one take, often over twenty minutes at a time. What I’m experiencing is the recording randomly dropping whole words and occasionally even two or three, so a sentence ends up making no sense at all. Which is frustrating. However, when my recording issues are resolved I shall be adopting a policy of posting only partial readings to YouTube, Vimeo and Dailymotion with the full versions exclusively on Bitchute. Suffice it to say I have good reasons for doing so. YouTube’s policy of erasing whole channels for being even mildly politically incorrect for one.

Then there’s the issue of my planned compilation. This is still a work in progress, but I have a few new ideas for satirical supernatural stories which I want to include. This will delay the final project completion by a month or two but I hope any potential readers will find it worth the wait.

On the ‘Stars trilogy’ front, the current draft of ‘Darkness between the stars’ has clambered arthritically over the 90,000 word mark after the last edit with about another 60,000 to go. That is how much further I have to travel down that path. What I have written so far is good and I have the last four thousand words already written. Unfortunately marrying the two parts together in a meaningful way is proving more difficult than I had first anticipated. There’s almost too much to keep in my head at any one time.

In the meantime, just to keep the story machine in my head working, I will continue with the short stories and see what strikes.

Is the Internet over?

Commenter Misha tells me that ‘the Internet is over’ and that ‘I won’. Oh dear, did I break something? I’ll try and fix it. Didn’t realise it was that delicate. After all the Internet was first designed to survive a first strike in a nuclear war and even famous rock stars haven’t been able to stop it (Even though they have subsequently changed their mind). Hmm. Maybe I can glue everything back together and no one will notice. All that TCP/IP and subnet mask setup, the horror, the horror. I’m so sorry. Didn’t mean to.

Yes, I know I was being teased. No offence taken and none, I hope, given.

Seriously; there’s an idea here for a new collective noun. An “Internet of argumentsfirst seen here. The Internet is full of argument and debate; from polite, studied discourse to flaming and virtual fist waving. There are virtual feuds and even death threats. People actually losing their jobs for making bad jokes (Which is a greater wrong than any original perceived wrong or slight). Which tells us that there are certain people who really should step away from the keyboard and take a chill pill once in a while. Which we all should do occasionally before adjusting our viewpoint and returning to any given discussion. That or become crazed obsessive compulsives.

In closing I would argue that arguments are very rarely lost or won, but they can achieve resolution. Even lead to new understanding if we learn to use such a useful sounding board as the Internet intelligently. Although this is only my opinion of course. There are others. Billions of them.

Why does the world have to be doomed?

In many Science Fiction movies there’s one plot device that, like a broken down show pony forced to perform despite old age, is dragged out time and again to strut its stuff. That of the Earth being ‘Doomed’ somehow by mankind through overpopulation or environmental disaster. Something that only a ‘hero’ can ‘save’ a sacred few from. It was a tired idea by the 18th Century CE (Seriously) and it’s worn to a nub of nothingness now. This premise is what’s put me off going to see the movie ‘Interstellar’.

In looking at possible (or impossible) futures I’ve always found it a good idea to examine what has sparked human migration since our species first learned to walk upright. From observation, the biggest motivator is that the grass will grow greener over the next hill. Fresh ground to occupy, new resources to develop, new ideas to explore. It’s part of the human condition. Only in the very early days of bipedal endeavour has environmental disaster played a significant role in mass migration. In the more modern era, migrations tend to be generated more by politics, war and economics than simple resources. To illustrate by analogy; when the fattest of cats have locked the dairy, the kittens will go elsewhere for their cream. And they will cross continents, even galaxies if the means are available.

It’s also worth noting that most of us simply want to get away from our parents and make our independent way in the world. Visit other places, learn other languages, meet other peoples. It’s been part of the human condition ever since we evolved to spread out a little. Mate, carve out a patch for the next generation and expand. If anyone were to ask me the meaning of life, that’s how I’d describe it. The Earth may well be our mother, but frankly wouldn’t it be embarrassing to tell other intelligent life forms that we still live in her basement?

Having a Literary weekend

Day off from the keyboard and wandering round downtown saw us take in the usual spots; Hey Happy, which brews some of the best coffee in town. Roberta’s Hats, where we got into conversation with one of the shop people over Shakespeare, acting and actors. Bought Angie a hat for her forthcoming trip to damp and rainy old Scarborough. Also a replacement for one of my caps which was about on its last legs, or brim, whatever. Stopped off at the Irish Times and James Joyce Literary bar for a drink, thence to Russell Books to update my literary education with a copy of the Portable James Joyce.

Now I’ve more or less finished writing ‘A Falling of Angels’ so I’m going to let my keyboard cool off a little to go see how one of the ‘Irish greats’ writes. I’ve read a little Brendan Behan, but not much else, so I’m trying to broaden my mind a little beyond purely English and Scottish authors. Joyce is a massive rift valley in my reading, and over the next week or three I’m going to try and put that right.

Fishing day

For the first time in ages I’m going fishing.   Rods and lines are ready. Licences purchased. My Brother in law is coming down for the weekend, and we’re going to do the guy thing down at Ogden Point breakwater if there’s room at the end.  The intention is to cast our lures into the water, talk, drink coffee, set the world to rights. Pick our wives up later for supper at Bubby’s on Cook Street this evening. Nothing heavy duty. There’s a nice little cafe at the landward end of the breakwater, should we tire of casting.

From the sound of it we both need a time out. Ian has had his head down in his educational software project, me in writing. Our respective spouses need quality sister time. Work and family duty has been pretty relentless of late. Too much really. Too much sadness. Time for a little Zen fishing.

I’m quite looking forward to the ritual of wind, line and water. Because sometimes an hour or two casting your cares into the sea is all you need to recharge the creative batteries. It clears the mind, helps tie up loose ends and unravels the kinks in the soul whether the fish bite or not.

As for catching anything worth taking home or losing bait, c’est la vie.

Research oddities

Researching information on golf clubs and woodland in the Sutton & Cheam area, I was busy googling for information on the Banstead Downs Gold Course near where I once lived. As well as the usual web pages on golf clubs in the area, I came across the ‘Sutton & Cheam WWII bomb map‘, which added an extra paragraph or two of local colour.

Certainly would make me think twice about using a Sand wedge to get out of the rough on the 18th fairway at Cuddington. If I played golf, which I don’t.

A small reorganisation

For those who are interested, “The Great Book of Everything” project has begun to evolve legs, so I’ve reorganized the pages a little so that each posted chapter appears in a list linked directly to the parent page. Overnight the bare bones of the tale has grown to just over 2000 words, and the characters are beginning to flesh out.

Parent page off top menu.
Rough text of Part 1 here.

Other parts will follow as they are written.

New project

While trudging away on the ‘A Falling of Angels’ manuscript, Angie and I took a little time out. We’ve been working every day of the week solidly for the last two years and are trying to reclaim our weekends. As part of this process we were out discovering some of the more interesting places in Victoria on foot and I had a little flash of inspiration which has turned into a minor project overnight.

With the working title ‘The Great Book of Everything’, I came up with the framework for a comic novel about a boy, his sarcastic pet Hamster and the Quantum nature of everything. And Squirrels. As soon as I get the web pages organised, I’ll post what I write online. This site needs reorganisation.

Happy Birthday World Wide Web

Today is my birthday. 12th March. I had no idea that Tim Berners-Lee first submitted his proposal for the World Wide Web today, twenty five years. A quarter of a century ago. Although the technology itself didn’t go public until 1993.

So short a time. Back in 1995 I recall penning a thousand word piece called ‘Cybermarket – the future of retailing’. Just a speculative PR article for the trade press. I believe I managed to place it in one of the trade technology journals of the time, although have no idea where it was printed. In the article there were predictions about Supermarket chains like Tesco’s getting into Financial Services and having online stores. Reference was made to the amount of bandwidth necessary to create an interactive online 3-D model of a Superstore, and how it might come about. Now Supermarkets provide online banking and financial services, the world and its wife provide on line shopping, and I think the fully interactive 3-D catalogue is not that far away. Certainly Internet driven home deliveries have been popular for some time now, and the graphics of certain game engines might be adapted to provide a better interface. Maybe the next iteration of online shopping will be a sort of World of Warcraft meets Second Life meets the retail sector.

Didn’t foresee the rise of eBay or Amazon, but those were then outside the scope of the article.

Anyway. Happy birthday World Wide Web. Well I never. So far so fast.

First snow

I’m sitting in our front room, looking out towards the islands, watching a very fine first snow fall. Tiny, uncertain flakes wending their way to the ground. Wandering with air currents, mostly down, sometimes up, but down they come, settling in small crystalline spots, lining up like migrating birds on top of the deck rail, blanketing windscreens in translucent white, but as yet not braving the ground.

Our local Ravens don’t seem to mind the extra crowded air. They sit on the wires as if critically examining each flake, discussing the merits of each ghostly crystal. “That one settle?”, “Nah, won’t last long.” before arguing and clumsily flapping off to some new perch.

So here I sit, dog at my feet, watching the visibility crowd slowly in, daydreaming of sunnier times before I finish my tea and start work.