Unfinished stories of austerity

FLASH FICTION

All over the country this weekend, in the few remaining places where social tenants manage to survive, stories will be played out and never told by those who live them: blots on the Conservative social cleansing landscape.

Unable to put them down through the Department of Work and Pensions’ dehumanising of benefits claims assessments with “medically-qualified assessors” (my last one was a midwife), the Tories can’t rid themselves of their shame.

Local councils clad their social housing to spare the views of the rich, on the cheap; and accidents happen, the Tories say. They sell off the NHS, bringing healthcare into line with everything else in Conservative Britain: It’s okay living here, if you can afford to…

Jagtve-69-Vendepunktet-by-WE-Architecture-and-Erik-Juul-00How social housing looks in Denmark.

TICKS AND CROSSES

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

A lifeline company, and so friendly, right down to the company logo: a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms, reaching out to help. Short-term credit loans were just the icing.

The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which was a viewing card too. A life made of plastic.

Topping up was a £2 call on her Living Loans mobile, and the week just lived was paid for. TV time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the mail any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

Mummy, can I stay in bed today? And can you read me Mr Tickle? Because he can reach into the kitchen and get food, without having to get out of bed and get cold.”

She went to the kitchen, signed, crossed, and ticked where indicated on the form.

© Steve Laker.

My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

The cats’ eye view on geopolitics

WORLD NEWS | POLITICS

It’s becoming clear that Russia and America are using Europe as a chess board, just like in the last Cold War. Away from the main game, Kim Jong-un has realised it’s best to get out of the nuclear arms race and partner with his Southern neighbour: a classic example of previously warring factions uniting against an emerging common foe. It’s in the southern province that “Killer robots” are being developed.

KoreanCountdown

With the warm-up for World War 3 well under way as predicted, the image above came through from Barbarossa on B3ta, so I called on a local cat through the Babel fish, to see what she made of the message.

After being reminded again that humans needed them 3000 years ago, and this is why they have nine lives, the cat set about decoding the meaning behind the text in the image for me.

The Babel fish of my fictional making is more a machine of interpretation of thoughts than conveyance of words, so the following may not be entirely accurate. Reading from left to right, the symbols translate literally thus, if you’re a cat:

Man with bandy legs, wearing funny hat (translation: President Trump and hair)
Hat gone: Wind blew
Angry building: White House
Protective hat on big head: North Korea
Vodka: Kremlin
(Double vodka)
Man with hair back on (Trump)
Protective hat: South Korea
Another angry building: possible killer robots inside

Developing…

My own fictional Babel fish was developed from the invention of Douglas Adams, to whom my (critically-acclaimed) science fiction novel is dedicated.

A White House invitation to Britain’s Got Talent*

WORLD NEWS | POLITICS

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to update this. So now that our shameless Prime Minister and her morally corrupt government have invited her puppet master to the UK, it was time to dust it off. With the visit planned for Friday 7/13, as it will come to be known, what could possibly go wrong? This just in…

SuBoNatAmSuBo previously caused controversy at T in The Park

SUSAN BOYLE ASKED TO WELCOME US PRESIDENT TO BRITAIN

Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle has confirmed that she’s been approached by the US president to perform a welcoming ceremony for his “most excellent” forthcoming UK visit, it is alleged.

The hairy cornflake said she was initially asked to sing I dreamed a dream from Les Miserables – the song which catapulted her to fame on Britain’s Got Talent – but she declined, referring to Emanuel Macron’s recent visit to Washington: “He watches one Russell Crowe film with the French president, and he thinks he knows history and politics?”

When pressed on the song she’d perform instead, she replied: “I’ve never done politics, so I asked wee Nicola Sturgeon what she thought. I told her I’d been approached, that it was for Donald, Theresa, and their special relationship, then she just came out with the song.”

Asked to confirm the planned welcoming anthem, Boyle confirmed, “Och, aye. It’s So what! by The Anti-Nowhere League. See, wee Nicky even knew the lyrics: ‘I’ve been to Hastings, I’ve been to Brighton, I’ve been to Eastbourne too…’ and so on. Well Donald’s been everywhere, before he was in politics, but now he’s coming to the UK. I doubt the prime minister will show him how Tory cuts have destroyed our seaside towns, but at least he’ll know what he’s buying. I’m glad I asked the wee lass.”

Asked how she came to be approached to perform for the president, Boyle said, “I think he got me mixed up with someone else. Elaine Paige maybe? But feck it, I’ve got a new album coming out and this is a good excuse to plug it. I’m not proud.”

Asked to explain her choice of song, Boyle said: “I started telling his people about The Anti-Nowhere League, and how they’re Christian revolutionaries, which is a complete lie, so I thought Donald would appreciate it. I went on to explain how So What! is an anthem. You know? Donald’s done all this stuff but, so what! He’s president! They didn’t even want to hear the lyrics, they were so convinced this would be the perfect, rousing song. Sold on a pack of lies, a bit like Brexit, and Trump himself.”

Boyle has a new record out in the Spring. ‘Bairns of the Revolution’ is an album of covers and tributes to her favourite recording artists. Other tracks include The Angelic Upstarts’ Last Night Another Soldier, David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, and The Sex Pistols’ Who Killed Bambi? Of the latter, Boyle said, “I thought that was a nice one for Donald’s sons. Maybe him and Theresa May could run through National Trust properties, shooting peasants while the Prime Minister sells off the country.”

So What! Lyrics at Genius.com

*None of this is true.

Noodles in the soup of memory

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Far be it from me to post a restaurant review, because I never have. I’ve dined at the odd fictional place I made up because I don’t get out much, so what good would it do to post an opinion on a real place? It’d probably get as many more visitors to a Chinese takeaway as I might expect sales of a book if a restaurant were to review one of mine.

blade-runner-2049-700x290SlashFilm article, on Asian cultures and characters

In the interests of reporting all which needn’t trouble the world outside my own, and in supporting local business, this week I visited a China just up the road.

It’s rare that I get out, let alone as far as the Asian continent. I went to France once on a family holiday, and happened to be in Chicago on a business trip when the world’s political axis was tipped on 9/11. I don’t fear the wider world any more than I do the planet in my head, which still makes travelling a challenge.

At the most recent surveilance of the horizons in my mind’s world, it was a narrow perspective. Rather than gazing and wondering outward, I was looking in; kind of like having a telescope round the wrong way.

The limited stocks of food I had wouldn’t go to waste, but my miscomprehension of why I eat told me I didn’t fancy what I had to hand: Such a first world problem. As I contemplated what to think about cooking and eating, the paradigm was shifted by a neighbour.

The kind of guy who’d offer you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine, my friend is harmless if humoured, and a social tenant like me with a past. Nevertheless, when I had no instant coffee which he’d forgotten to buy in the morning, he asked me if I’d make him one of my nice filter ones (which I did).

Like me, my neighbour doesn’t get out much. So I decided to save both me and him further bother by going out to buy him some instant coffee. Then I wondered why I was out on my own in the dark. To solve problems, I guessed: Those of others, which might alleviate my own. As fresh as the coffee I’d just bought from Tesco Metro, the air drew my attention to my local Chinese takeaway.

I’ve lived here for two years, but I’ve never troubled the local cuisine. I’m happier instead to buy food to look at (and sometimes not cook) from the supermarket. So I crossed the road.

I wasn’t particularly hungry and neither did I want to eat, but both were down to my own inaction. I forced myself to eat by buying a takeaway, from a place not unlike many whose windows I’d gaze through longingly when I was homeless.

For all of twenty minutes, I was back on the streets again, but now looking out on a world in which I had a home to return to. It brought back memories, so I reverted to type and ordered what I always used to: sweet and sour king prawn balls, with rice vermicelli, Singapore style. The walk home was less eventful than the paranoid mind imagines, and nothing happened.

The words “Fresh” rest uneasily in my mind with Chinese takeaway, but my king prawns were somehow new in their batter, the sauce not like that I remember from artificiality, and the noodles disguising nothing but the sweetness of fresh chillis from that other continent, just outside my door.

It’s a place called “Lovely”, it’s right on my doorstep and it helped me find my way, by way of Chinese takeaway. It also served well as a day-after snack, where the measure is now less of a hangover cure and more about preserving food inside the body.

Once upon a time, I shared many meals from China and around the world with others, without actually going there. This week, I fed myself with a breath of outside air. I don’t go out much, and it’s no wonder when I’m let loose for a few minutes and all this happens. It’s a reminder of why I’m not allowed to roam free-range and why I just write about it. Anyone passing through and who can’t be arsed to cook, should call into a lovely place not a million miles from me.

I guess I just used this post to write.

I previously reviewed August Underground’s Diner and The Green Inferno in fiction. Lovely Chinese takeaway really does exist.

Writing directly on derelict walls

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Just as humans seem to be waking up to the crimes they’ve committed on our home world, I’m dealing with the self-harm I’ve recently inflicted upon myself. Being one of the many, prompted the individual. While humans have a moral responsibility to clear up their own mess, I owed it to myself to address mine: The fall of the wall.

Robot GraffitiGraffitiUrban.com

We’ve been here before, and it’ll happen again, when I’ve taken a mental knock in life and fallen into a ditch. With my brand of depression, it’s difficult to get over things which others might shrug off. When I’m personally invested in something and it goes wrong, I have a tendency to blame myself and dwell in a pool of guilt and self-doubt.

It’s an irrational internal brain blame culture, which extends to the problems of my fellow species on Earth. When I look around at what we’ve done, I wonder if I could have done more to prevent it. But could I have stopped Brexit, or the election of Trump? No more than I could make my dad better, or promise my kid sister she’ll live happily ever after as a matriarch.

Forces beyond my control are frustrating, just as all that we don’t understand is the greatest human fear. Unseen agents wresting control from me, have been the roots of past medical diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): being robbed at knifepoint, triggering an alcoholic decline to the end of a marriage, and another PTSD diagnosis.

Further trauma followed in the years I was homeless, and they all carry memories and regrets which fester in the repentant mind. At the last count, I had five or six entries for PTSD on my medical file, each compounding its predecessor. My dad’s health and my sister’s life hereafter are holding, but each could lead to a further dive into my own sense of self-worth, as I wonder if there was more I could have done.

I realise that if I’m to be in any way effective as a carer, helper, adviser and counsel, I need to get over myself; I have to keep going for other people’s sake despite myself, yet the only person I have to speak to about that is in the mirror, or on this page.

There was much in life which was outside my control, and no individual human can be held personally responsible for their species’ misdeeds, but we can work together to repair the damage. When I was still in London, I had an excellent psychologist who’d let me spill my thoughts on the floor, then go through them with me. All I can do now is spew up on a screen. Not all of this might make sense, but it helps to write it.

I’d forgotten I’m a writer and became more myself, and I don’t like that. It was writing which saved me from myself and pulled me back from the gutter, and it’s been self-help for the solitary anxious depressive ever since. Once the words are flowing, nothing else matters so much. The feel of keys beneath my fingers is my pulse. Even if I’m churning out pulp, eventually I’ll find decent prose, like the infinite monkeys writing Shakespeare.

I think I’ve done enough now, to apologise and make good all that I can. To dwell further is to hold others back, and myself. I gave up apologising to those who can’t find it in themselves to forgive. I prefer resolutory debate over conflict or a simple refusal to engage, but I’d rather walk away from a wall I can’t get over than talk to it. I only had myself to talk to, and I got over it.

Guilt is a wall as high as you build it. It will always be there as a constant reminder, but provided you’ve paid it sufficient moral respect, you can climb over it, walk around it, or simply go through it, rather than keep bumping into it and having to talk to it. When the lights go out at night and I’m writing, walls come tumbling down.

Reducing plastics in my diet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We’re now a week into the British summer which forgot about spring, and despite having my window open, I’ve had no visitors. When I write at night, my desk lamp shines from the window, but not a single moth has dropped by. It’s resigned me to eat less plastic.

cow
A plastinated cow, from Gunther von HagensBodyWorlds

I suspect this may be the year when we finally wake up to the damage we’ve done to our planet, and humans may have to re-evaluate their diets: Not just what they eat, but as a moral responsibility. If we don’t change soon, the entire planet’s food chain could collapse.

It’s only been in the last year or so that we’ve had our eyes opened to the extent of our planetary pollution with plastics, thanks in large part to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. We’re lucky that scientists have stumbled upon a bacteria which eats some types of plastics, but there’s a lot of food.

Since the invention of plastic, humans have created 9 billion tonnes of plastic waste. While some efforts are afoot, less than 10% has been recycled, with most of it sitting in landfill and not decomposing. We’re developing machines which can help clear the waste which is loose in the wider world, but the real problem is micro-plastics.

In a recent study, micro-particles of plastic were found in arctic waters, so it’s thought that every cubic metre of the oceans is contaminated. In turn, these particles are ingested by wildlife, and passed up the food chain. Water evaporates into clouds, then falls as rain somewhere else on the planet, dropping plastic with it. Every single living organism on planet Earth is part-plastic. While we might clear up the immediately obvious mess, the long-term effects of internal plastic pollution aren’t known, as it’s only a recently-discovered phenomenon.

Returning to the food chain and my lack of visitors, I’d welcome even a blue bottle or a wasp, if it at least confirmed the insects were still around. Since we missed out spring, those who survived are emerging far more suddenly (but in fewer numbers) with the rapid rise in temperature. But while they were asleep, nature couldn’t make enough food for them (because it usually does that in spring).

Fewer flowers means less nectar for the invertebrates who do emerge, and reduced pollination of plants. Fewer insects is less food for spiders, birds and small mammals, their predators and all the way up the food chain.

For the humans who place themselves at the top table, there’s a relatively quick-fix solution: Grab more land for farming, produce more crops and livestock, so that humans can eat. And make the problem worse.

To sustain our current (mostly carnivorous) population, humans need more of the planet they’ve already taken too much of. If we selfishly solve our own problems by driving wildlife from its habitats, the animals will continue to die out at an accelerated rate. Like the plastics inside us all, the mass extinction of animals will have repercussions and knock-on effects which we’ve never imagined.

More humans, farming and livestock, will lead to further rises in global temperature, sea levels rising, and even less land being fertile as a result. Increased climate change, affected by humans, will further erode the seasons, and increasing numbers of animals, from invertebrates to the largest predators, will die out as the food chain eventually collapses. And we’re seeing the beginning in the UK this year.

The only way to halt this destruction is to eat less meat. Less livestock would mean less land is needed for rearing, or growing crops for livestock feed (The argument, “If we don’t eat them, we’ll be overrun; it’s just like in nature”, holds no water, as the vast majority of what humans eat, they rear themselves). Fewer heads of livestock would also mean fewer arses producing methane gasses.

I can’t help feeling somewhat to blame, not just for being human, but because my family have always been farmers. When the first Africans and Europeans arrived in what is now Britain (having crossed what was then a connected land mass with the continent), they’d have found Iron Age settlements, the remnants of which are still visible today, close to where I used to live as a child (Oldbury Woods, in Ightham, Kent). Those first Europeans taught the ancient Britons how to use their weapons as tools, so that they eventually evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, raising their own livestock.

As someone who’s partly responsible for that, I’ve tried being part-vegetable in the past, and failed to varying degrees. I’m limited to just a Tesco Metro for food shopping, unwilling to travel and not wanting to contribute to air pollution with unnecessary deliveries. The greater limitation though is that I live alone and have a small appetite, meaning that a lot of food used to go to waste (I only have space for a small freezer).

So for now, I’m a “meat-reducer”, which may sound like a total cop-out (and it’s used as an excuse by many) but which does make a difference. I’ll buy fewer of the more expensive meats, so they’ll be free range, and with animal welfare at the top of the shopping list.

One bird will feed me for a week, starting with a roast on Sunday, when I cook the whole bird and eat a leg. When you’re used to mass-produced, growth-enhanced chicken, it’s surprising how much more meat a bird will yield, if it’s had time to grow and roam in relative freedom. Once the rest is carved from the bone, there’ll be a casserole, a curry, a stir fry, and some sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll boil the carcass and make a stock or a soup. One chicken for a week, so little packaging too.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable eating something which was once a self-determining sentient being, when I could choose not to. Even free-range, responsibly-reared meat was made for human consumption, but it’s still another person. Turned on its head, it would be like animals choosing only to eat Category D prisoners, help in open prisons.

This diner must try harder, and others might take a leaf from my book.

There are possible solutions to our planetary problems in my book, which are achievable if we work with those whose planet we share. It’s their planet, we just live with them, and we have a moral responsibility to protect them and their home, and to clear up the human mess we made.

Corvids with opposable thumbs

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

The UK’s weather has jumped suddenly from winter to summer, and nature seems to have overlooked spring. But I’ve noticed fewer of the invertebrate visitors than I expected through my open window, as they emerge from their long sleep, and I wonder how many have perished because of humankind’s interference with the thermostat on nature’s climate control.

Fewer insects mean less food for birds, so I’ve taken to scattering seeds on the flat roof directly outside my window, where avian friends gather. I’ve had the usual suspects (thrushes, starlings, sparrows…) and there’s a regular wagtail who visits, but nevertheless their numbers are few, which is troubling.

I also get members of the corvid mafia, mainly crows and magpies, so I’ve been witness to the odd murder, gulp and charm of collective nouns. Knowing these birds to be incredibly intelligent, I’m thinking of making some food puzzles for them, so that I can witness their ingenuity first-hand. If I put some nuts in my Rubik’s cube, they might be able to work out something which has stumped me for many years.

A friend of mine once wondered at these bird brains, and I myself pondered what a world might be like if crows had opposable thumbs…

Crow Star WarsTheStarWarsCulture

A TALE WITH MANY STRINGS

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of writers’ block that I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

Royalties had dried up from my last book and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

Don’t you excuse yerself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yerself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Of course, all corvine birds are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain had voted to leave the EU, Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was his heir apparent. Across the Atlantic, Trump had installed himself in the Whitehouse, banned anyone he didn’t quite understand from entering the USA and was erecting a wall across the Mexican border. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A couple of years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered: If I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive; five years hence. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms: At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself five years ahead, of time; of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening five years.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The “little” supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over five years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called “The Library”. Kudos I supposed to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine: I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Five years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. I must not, I couldn’t; I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree; couldn’t give a fuck.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just five years from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, “That”.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous five year period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determinednot to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over: what if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been opened; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous 500 years, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what is in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs; Change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

You are.”

Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016

This story is taken from The Perpetuity of Memory, my first anthology. My second collection of shorts – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.