Tuesday, 29 November 2011

An International Hub Airport in Kent?

This morning it was announced that the Government is looking into plans for an international hub airport in the South East.

So where, if the South-East has no option but to have a new airport, would be best for Kent? I still believe the existing airports could be utilised (see previous blog) and in Kent that means Manston, (Kent International Airport). The runway is already capable of landing the size of aircraft required for long haul to the China and Asia and expansion of this airport into an international hub that flies only to far-east destinations would prioritise this new market for the South-East.

It also means that infrastructure already in place can be upgraded meaning a quicker lead time for businesses wishing to access the UK and Europe. A upgrade of existing lines to a fast shuttle train to the Channel Tunnel Rail Terminal and Ashford International Station provides a gateway to Europe and to London. There are also an abundance of ports in Kent, not least of all Ramsgate and Sheerness, ideally situated to benefit a Hub Airport, Europe and the North-Eastern ports of England and Scotland.

Kent offers a large, skilled workforce in towns such as Ashford, Margate and the Medway Towns without the stranglehold of an already congested, built city and all the associated development costs involved with London. It brings regeneration to areas which have suffered neglect through the slow centralisation of post-industrial markets to the city and uniquely offers a superb opportunity for a lower-impact, greener, technologically innovative approach to a hub airport in the south east.
If the only alternative on offer is an airport in the Thames Estuary, built on Kent land, then I would prefer the jobs and economic opportunity to be wholly for Kent and would want the hub at Manston.

Kent and it's extraordinary historical, cultural and recreational landscape could provide a 'green city' for new and emerging world markets but it could also so easily lose out and be sidelined by the already proposed London-centric plans.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Why I am apposed to a Thames Estuary Airport

By building new airports we will be contributing to the global rise in greenhouse gas emmissions, air travel being one of the worst culprits, increasing to the problem of climate change in already stricken locations such as the Sahel region of Africa and increasing the burden of support required for future generations, not to mention hindering rather than helping to meet our Kyoto and domestic emmissions targets and placing even more burden on the domestic power user.

The cost of the project raises concern as well, how much are the tax payers going to have to contribute to the billions required when the NHS, education, housing and welfare and elderly are all in such need at the moment?

Then there are the practical considerations, the chaos of the South-East road network last winter during the snow highlighted the problems faced in an already crowded South-East. No matter how many train links are built, there will still be many airport users who will be relying on their cars to get them to flights adding to already congested roads in the area and the dreaded prospect of more cars on the M25.

There is also the practicality of building an airport on or near the Isle of Grain and the marshes on both sides of the estuary. These are important sites for migrating birds and the birds are not going to simply move away from their traditional winter sites, causing bird strike hazards for every plane arriving at the airport. Marshes also help to protect the Thames itself, a natural valve for floodwater and water level rises. There will have to be, no doubt, extraordinary engineering projects to not only protect the Thames valley and London but the airport itself, all at potentially huge further cost as sea levels continue to rise due to climate change exacerbated not least by the increase in air traffic...

Which brings me to the noise pollution, increasing air traffic over the already busy South East, the fact that the train lines are pointing into London and bypassing the (hopefully soon a city) Medway Towns, the removal of the wrecks lying in the estuary...

I can see there is a desperate need for more jobs in Kent and the UK but I firmly believe that the airport, like many vanity projects before it (the cost to the tax payer of the millenium dome for one) will ultimately cost this country far more than it would eventually provide in jobs and homes and would not combat the problems our school leavers/graduates face right now.

If this country really needs more airport capacity it makes far more sense, would cost far less and have infrastructure already there to look again at existing airports.
There is a perfectly good train system to Europe from London and the south-east which businesses should be encouraged to use, cutting down pressure on Stanstead and removing the need for European flights from Heathrow and Gatwick and allowing that spare capacity to be used for long haul flights. Business should also be encouraged to use far more innovative technology to keep in contact globally, such as conference calling and the internet, providing cost effective measures in travel budgets for companies in a time of global downturn. I believe the business communities do not need more airports but a better rationalisation of the services already available and better rail network within all areas of the UK.

If new runways are unavoidable, we should look again at existing runways in the UK such as Manston, Bournemouth, ex-military airfields around London and northern airports that might provide capacity and better value for money for the tax payer.

And finally, I can't help feeling that because the site is the Thames Estuary and in the already very built-up South-East, the environmental impact on these fragile, remaining natural estuary reserves is being overlooked, I guess if it was called 'The National Thames Estuary Park' nobody would want to concrete over it.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Garden in November

Red Line Quaker moth

This November has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the garden, not least the arrival of a monstrous layer of mist and cloud that has swallowed the sky for weeks. There are the odd days of sunshine and bright skies, where the slow autumnal tints burnish deeper red and yellow. But mostly the garden is dripping with mist and lost in a dank, dull greyness that leaches the enthusiasm out of even the most cheerful of gardener.

The unseasonabaly warm temperatures have caused mayhem in the flowerbeds and a ballooning of funghi in the long, now too wet to cut, grass. Leaves lie where they fall, a blizzard of bright yellow confetti and once bare branches have started to bud again. The chrysanthemums are just about holding up against the damp but everywhere mould and rot starts to creep. Slippery paving stones turn green and black and squidgy drifts of leaves moulder untouched by even the lighest of breeze.

Buddleja is budding again. The oak in the pot lost it's leaves and is now sporting a modest jacket of green again. The wallflowers are growing softly lush and leggy. Love-in-a-mist seedlings have sprung up in a carpet of green. The camelia has an impressive set of new flower buds. Spring bulbs are emerging. If this mildness continues I might have irises for Christmas.

And what of the wildlife? Well, it's good weather for snails. The bird feeders are visited by the usual crowd; jays, magpies, blackbirds, bluetits, great tits, robin, dunnock and a small creeping wren. Collared doves and wood pigeons, a rook and squirrels are all there too.

The worry now has to be when will the cold weather arrive? Will the garden be caught by a sudden frost and all this out-of season tender new growth be burnt by plummeting temperatures? Do I wrap up the fig and camelia now and risk damp and mould setting in, or leave it another week and risk a sudden temperature drop?
Outside the sun is low in the sky, just making it through the clouds, a pale golden disk chasing the moon, wispering sweetly it's still too warm for winter yet.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

World Food Day 2011

Link to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN with information about World Food Day.

BBC article about the benefit of trees for crop security.

Information about TreeAid.

Independent newspaper article about the one billion that will go hungry this year.

A link to the HEWS(Humanitarian Earling Warning Service) map.

Fairtrade Foundation article on Food, Farming and the Future.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Compendium of Games

In rote and rhyme and rattles
In small mimes and giggles and stumbles
These first games played out
In baby pink and blue
Then a hopscotch of summers
Stretched out over gardens and pavements
Beaches and street corners
Chased through recs and littered lanes
Older then and the games change
No more french skipping, cat's cradle and jacks
Now cards and the roll of the dice
All hopeful glance and wishful dalliances
A whir of bikes and skateboards
Until the rules
No longer drawn in chalk upon the pavement
Change and a new game emerges
Casino neons and smoky glare
The chance, the dare
A lottery thrill of winning big
The chase, the race
The nine to five cut and thrust
Navigating the profit and loss
Until the pieces move into place
And you have won or lost
And fortune's played your hand
Now the crossword
Now the quiz show
Now a quiet game of patience
As the clock slows

It's all boxed up now, in the loft
Those games we played so long ago
A compendium of who and where and when
And how life goes

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

2010 ~ 2012 Ripplestone Review Biennial Awards cancellation

It is with regret that the Ripplestone Review will be cancelling the 2010 ~ 2012 awards due to the increasing financial pressures caused by the ongoing economic downturn. All events/music/places etc reviewed during this period will remain eligible for the 2014 awards (which may be called Quadrennial Awards) when, hopefully, the economy will have picked up.
Many thanks to all the fanatastic places/events/music that have been reviewed in the last two years and wishing everyone the best of luck going forward.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The restorative landscape of the Somerset Levels.

High across the meadow pastures, lazy in the late summer sun, swoop house martins and swallows, coursing the waterways for insects while willows scrabble along the banks below. Roads, barely above the water level, intersect the canals and ditches, meandering through villages built of mellow ham stone. Georgian and medieval houses, thatched cottages, farms and hamlets all holding back the surrounding wetland with stone walls and neat kitchen gardens.

All of this spreads out from my vantage point on Glastonbury Tor. It is one of those beautiful late Sunday afternoons, where the heat of the day is slowly rising to reveal a landscape that stretches from Dorset round to Devon and the Avon estuary then back round to the Mendip hills in the north. It is beyond picturesque, it is deeply captivating, a landscape that drinks you in, restoring the soul from the steep climb up the hill.

Of course, I am not alone, there is a delightful mix of pilgrim, rambler, coach tripper, cyclist, didgeridoo player and holiday-maker here on the Tor. Perhaps it is just the effect of the didgeridoo echoing in the tower, or the heart mown into a nearby field or the sheep grazing on the dizzyingly steep sides or the kites flying overhead but suddenly, I am filled with benevolent cheeriness and am even driven to compose a few lines of verse.

Heart on a hill beneath a tiger sky
Over rippling fields swallows fly
Footsteps echoing this path once more
All the way round Glastonbury Tor

It was a lovely start to a week on the Somerset Levels and I have detailed below some of the places I thought were not to be missed in the area.

In Glastonbury town are the beautiful ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Try catching a talk in the Abbot's Kitchen, a vivid insight into life at the Abbey before it's dissolution. The Abbey is situated where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have built a small wattle and daub church in 63AD. The Holy Thorn, said to be from the bush that sprung forth from Joseph of Arimathea's staff when he thrust it into the ground at Glastonbury is also in the grounds as is the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere.

It is almost impossible to extricate the Abbey from the wealth of myths and legends it contains and so it is worth visiting Mulchenay Abbey, a nearby ruin for another glimpse of monastic life before the dissolution. For a complete example of medieval stone masonry, try Wells Cathedral. The extraordinary modern-looking scissor arches, the West Front and the octagonal Chapter House are not to be missed.

Tucked into the high street of Glastonbury is a building called the Glastonbury Tribunal, it houses the Tourist Information Centre and the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum, an interesting exhibit about the iron age village nearby, dating from 300BC and from a time when the Levels were an inland sea.

A couple of unusual but extremely interesting places are Wells Reclamation Yard and The Forge of Avalon. Pretty much anything you could ever want for your house or garden can be found at Wells Yard and worth wandering round just so you can marvel at the thought of where you would put a statue or a column or, indeed, a Russian tank in your garden!
The Forge of Avalon is where the sword-smith Richard Hoecker works. His beautiful pattern welded blades keep this centuries-old Celtic craftsmanship alive. Details of events, workshops and commissioning information are on the website.

The stunning landscape of the Cheddar Gorge, carved out by glacial melt-water, is best viewed from the top of an open bus with a guide to point out the salient features but for the more intrepid there are rock climbing courses and the 274 steps to the look out tower and cliff-top walk. The view from the top of the gorge, across the Glastonbury Tor, Cheddar Reservoir and off to Devon just about make the 274 steps worth it (and provide a good calorie-burning excuse for indulging in some cave-matured cheddar cheese afterwards).

Mountain goats have been introduced to reclaim the original landscape and form part of the varied and unique fauna and flora of this area. Within the gorge are the caves, Gough's cave in particular providing a good audio guide exploration of the cave system and it's history. The Museum of Pre-History provides context to 'Cheddar Man' and has a good hands-on demonstrations of prehistoric skills.

For days further out from the Levels, try the Fleet Air Arm Museum or Longleat (check for ticket discounts in conjunction with Cheddar Gorge).
For the beach, try Weston-Super-Mare but bear in mind the tide goes out a long, long way over mud flats. Entertainments include The Grand Pier, Ferris wheel, sand sculpture park, aquarium, kids play park, donkeys, fish and chips, promenade....

(click on photos for larger image)

Seven hot dogs and a bottle of pop please!

Pouring with rain for the week, run out of things to do, kids are bored? Then it's time to turn to man's best friend, the DVD dog. All the family fun of a real pet without the poopy scooping!

Eight Below(PG) Eight dogs left behind in the Antarctic, struggling to survive the winter. Expect tears.
Turner and Hooch (PG) A classic cop and dog comedy drama with added slobber.
Snow Dogs (PG) Miami dentist inherits Alaskan sledge dogs. Mayhem ensues.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua (PG) Little dogs, big hearts.
Marley and Me (PG) One man and his dog, oh, and his wife, career, kids...
Beethoven (PG) Just a big dog with a big brain.
Bolt (PG) Animated superhero and his sidekick-in-a-ball hamster friend on a mission to save the day.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

July: The Garden at High Tide

(click on photos for larger image)

July always seems like a high tide kind of month in the garden. Midsummer has passed and the swelling buds and green expectation of Spring has blossomed into the full on riot of flowers and weeds. The garden has yet to fall into the lazy stupor of Autumn, when all that green growth mellows out and chills for a while in long afternoons under gold skies. But for now, the garden is at full reach. The lawn is awash with clover and daisy. The flower beds, at any moment, will surrender to waves of bindweed and brambles and the jasmine and buddleja are in full sail.
Overhead, on clear blue evenings, swifts are hunting. This year's fledglings are still visiting the bird feeders, young woodpeckers and jays the last to arrive. Slugs, snails and spiders are in abundance. The ants have not yet flown and the bush crickets are not yet singing. Butterflies are arriving, red admirals, ringlets, large whites and the lovely hummingbird hawkmoth.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Everywhere are bees and hoverflies. In the late dusk the bats flit and very soon, the dragonflies will join them in a feeding frenzy on the insects that fill the July air like so much woodland krill.

The green glow of a gloworm.

There is no time to stop, I should be weeding and deadheading and clearing and mowing and... then it rains, a heavy downpour that threatens to flatten all the flowers, only it's July and within an hour or two the garden will be swell again.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The hot friday of a London June

The train slows outside the station
Long enough to let me notice
Towering over the platforms' sleek arteries
A shard of glass and steel
Holding the sky in it's nettle grasp
All around new tower blocks jostle
To London Bridge
The frantic pace of change
Echoed in the insistent alarm
And slow hiss of pneumatic doors
I alight into the hot friday of a London June

First point of call is Southwark Cathedral
A quiet stay in the fabric of passing traffic
All welcome here, even the cat
And I marvel at the wooden bosses
The icon and the poet's tomb
I rub Will's knee for luck
And pause at the door
Visibly moved by the Marchioness Memorial
But the river runs on regardless

I walk with the quick pace of a city dweller
Not the slow doodle across the pavement
Of the day tripper who stops and stares
At every blue plaque and brass doorknocker
No, I sweep pass the Golden Hinde
And into Clink Street
A detour over Southwark Road
And Bankside finds me by the Globe
Neatly thatched and insular
To the passing street theatre
Clowns and mimes and latin americana

Now I am here
Outside the Tate Modern
Industrial cathedral
With it's hallowed spaces
Of art and culture held within
A red brick certainty

A coffee and biscuit on the members' terrace
As people wander over the Millenium Bridge
And sailing dinghys ply the stretch upriver
With a breeze as sharp as Cleopatra's needle
Down stairs and through doors
To find the Miro exhibition
In the theatre of his war
Every canvas his stage
Every print a soliloquy
To art
To freedom
Perhaps to dream
An infinite blue silence
Against the outrage
Of bloody opression
No voice more eloquent
In these thronging rooms

On South Bank there's a beach
With sand and huts
And a large straw fox
It makes me laugh
The juxtapostion of this day
From surrealism to surreal
Lunch is such a treat

Across the footbridge at Charing Cross
And on to Trafalgar Square
Where the sweet spray from the fountains
Cools the heat from my face
As light as summer rain
On the people's plinth sails a ship in a bottle
By the National Gallery a green wall grows
And here, the Olympic Clock, still ticking
Counting down my passing feet

Picadilly and the Royal Academy
Sipping Pimms from room to room
As canvas after canvas adorn the walls
In ever greater scale and price
My eyes alight on beetled buttons
And a fat kingfisher
A dog rooting in a bin
A swirling red galaxy inexorably pulling me in
All punctuated by a circle and a square
The tide of flourescent red dots
Rising up the wall
To remind me
The river runs on regardless

Now London in high afternoon heat
Heaps sweat and dust and noise on my brow
Rush hour soon as pavements swell
Under the bridge the neat rows of coloured lights
The final shattered bones of buildings
Being shored up with comedy clubs and beer kellers
And all around the commuters press ahead
To London Bridge

Against this human tide
I catch a glimpse
A face
A moment's recognition soon lost
They were heading in the other direction anyway
And my train is due

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Scrambling into Spring.


After a cold, miserable winter, the arrival of the Spring equinox this week has been a blast of much needed sunshine and birdsong. With temperatures climbing into the high teens and no rain, the garden has burst into life with daffodils, primroses and the first violets and grape hyancinths budding.

clematis shoots

Everywhere are new buds and new shoots. Hoverflies and bees are emerging and the still air is draped with the shimmering threads of busy spiders, drifting lazily across the lawn.

willow leaves emerging

The birds are full song and the bird table has quite a variety of visitors. So far in the garden I've seen:

Robin, Blackbird, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Starling, Thrush, Jay, Wood pigeon, Collared dove, Long tailed tit, Bluetit, Great Tit, Magpie and Rook. But there is one casualty of the harsh winter, no signs of any wrens.


The supermoon seemed much brighter over the woods last weekend and was a great chance to catch sight of the bats that fly in over the garden.

supermoon 9.00pm

This weekend sees the Kent's Big Weekend Out , let's hope this glorious weather lasts till then.

Click on photos for larger image.
More photos can be viewed at Ripplestone Garden.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

I Dream in Science Fiction (short story)

I open the envelope and unfold the letter, smoothing out the pages in front of me on the desk. Outside, the early evening mist is sinking low over the hedges. The house is quiet save for the muffled double-whoop of a wood pigeon echoing down the chimney.
The pages are written in crisp black ink, beautiful handwriting, a joy to read, equal margins and proper paragraphs. What was the word for this... calligraphy, no... copperplate. I start to read.

'My Dearest One,'

Immediately I stop, how beautiful, to be someone's dearest one. I glance briefly, ruefully at the envelope and wish I had used a letter opener on it, this is a letter I would keep. A letter to read and reread until the pages were turned into frail cobwebs of ink and dust.

My Dearest One,

Here I am, at the beginning of another century, writing this to you in the hope that you will understand how I came to be out here, so far from you. I don't really know how to write this, how to make this make sense so I will start with my present situation and work back and, perhaps, I'll reach a point where you will understand, where it will all fall into place.

The work here at the base is routine and dull, checking temperature and humidity on the seed-banks. Keeping the food farm productive. An endless dull routine of checks and maintenance protocols. Of course there is timetabled interaction with the others too. There are in all, four of us at any one time, to have less would be to produce an unsustainable chain of continuity so for now, four of us it is.

I am fast approaching that age when the years behind me stretch back longer than the years in front but I am not yet ready to retire to that rambling world of reminiscence and so, with the spare hours left in the day, I have been working on this letter and on ways of sending it to you.

Sitting here, from this vantage point the world stretches out in front of me solid and tangible through the glass and yet still so very far out of reach. We are a long way from returning to the earth. Such a long way to go still, did you all realise just how long? Thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. Were you all expecting some big reset button to be pressed? A sudden annihilation of those last centuries of collective guilt, washed clean by some cathartic cataclysm and then, nature would carry on as normal. Start to reboot the complex, dynamic ecosystems, build food chains, breathe life into the dead oceans, regrow the rainforests, re-carpet the grass plains. Like some magical force that would relight the candle once it had been extinguished. Did you all not once think how slim the chances of that happening were? Where else did you find life in the solar system, in the universe beyond?

There are so many papers in the archives about tipping points, reached and passed, as though the inevitable extinction of life on earth was beyond your control and yet through it all is this idea of redemptive hope, of gaia and the robustness of nature which would always mean, given long enough, life would return. Could you not for a moment, understand how infinitesimally small the chance of that tipping point back into sustainable life would be? But I am not blaming you, or trying to turn this into some moral lecture. The plain truth of it is, despite all the hope and theories, all the predictions and graphs and experiments, the planet remains barren and, to date, there has been no sign of a tipping point back to life.

Of course those last couple of centuries where you all tried very hard to predict the point at which the planetary ecosystems would reach unsustainability have a poignancy that, with hindsight, is almost unbearable because the truth of it is, you had reached the tipping point long ago. Not when you killed the last dodo. Not when there were only 1000 tigers left in the wild. Not when the last whales were culled for food, not when the last rainforests had been cleared and the great lakes were little more than malaria infested swamps. But long before, you tipped the planet over into extinction when you first decided the planet existed for you and not that you existed because of the planet.

As the top creatures in the food-chains started to disappear, none of you were too alarmed. Why would you need tigers, elephants, whales, sharks, lions, bears. Were they not the simply the dinosaurs of their age? They were troublesome, competed for resources with you, were dangerous to kill and often killed you. Those big creatures could be exhibits in parks and zoos instead. Safe behind inches of glass and steel, abstracted into an ideal of life, such as I am now, stuck here in this base. The irony is not lost on me, that all humanity tried to save the last few of these creatures, without really knowing, ultimately, the life of the zoological example would be their own fate.

Alarm bells only started to ring when it was far too late. When the globally warmed superstorms swept the planet. When smaller mammals and reptiles suffered mass die-outs. When crops failed, when some insect species died while others thrived. When disease stopped being epidemic and became endemic to human existence. When you woke up one day and discovered all that was left were humans, insects and disease. Of course, the smart money was on the insects surviving the catastrophic extinction of life on earth. If you look at the human body and realise it is a walking Petri dish of exploitation for every bacteria and virus and then add in a climate that is hostile to that body's defence mechanisms but lets diseases flourish and replicate faster than ever predicted, it was only decades before you reached your own extinction point. And the insects? Well they have to eat something and when there was nothing left, they too were turned to dust in the superstorm chaos that still ravages the planet.

So, here I am, with my three others, going about my daily routine, ensuring that here, in this ark of collected human existence we continue. Of course, over the centuries we have perfected the cloning techniques pioneered by humans and I am the perfect replica of my old self, my younger self and my infant. We still keep to a human timetable of life expectancy and growth experience, there really is no better way to mature the brain, to optimise it's functionality than through time and experience. Of course, over the years, we have extended the lifespan slightly to an average of one hundred and fifty years, any longer and the burden of decrepitude outweighs the knowledge base and functionality of the brain and body. And so we stretch, in an unbroken chain back to when this base was built to store all the knowledge, all the lessons learnt, all the saved flotsam and jetsam of the shipwrecked human world. Stored, preserved and catalogued on computer circuitry and in sealed vaults. Every sequenced piece of DNA, every word of remembered poetry, every example of human enterprise. The plan was, when earth had healed itself, we would return and insert ourselves back into the environment, leapfrog a few millennia of the evolutionary process by resurrecting ourselves at a point where we could learn from our mistakes, start again.

But it has not turned out that way. There has been no tipping point back to paradise and we are abandoned and lost here in this base for all time. So, in this short span of life I have been working on ways to send out a distress flare, back through time, to highlight our plight. A message in a bottle, a clarion call for change. To warn of what lies ahead for humanity and for the planet. For humans to stop, reflect and change before it is too late and to say, here, here is the tipping point! The final point of no return for you and all life on the planet.

I have spent many years working through the records and, with extensive computer modelling, the last point where change might be effective and scientific reasoning optimised enough for comprehension is in the 1700's when the dodo was pushed into terminal decline by human activity. A compelling example of what is to come to help prick your collective human conscience. It will give you a few centuries to mend your ways, just the slimmest chance to reach for survival. To tip the scales back in yours and the planet's favour. The technologies I am using to send this letter back in time are not so far removed from traditional human practises. Astral projections, meditations, these are techniques widespread throughout human history. The hardest part will be to narrow the window of projection back to the right century, to narrow in down the millennia of years that stretch out to this present day. Building the brain function to perform this projection through time was relatively easy in comparison.

And so, my dearest one, this is the hardest part, putting this distress call in a way that is both comprehensible to the human mind while knowing it is also a letter of farewell. Because, if this message works, if humanity can find a way to alter the balance in their favour, then all this, this ark, this last little bubble of humanity preserved out here on the moon will not be necessary and I, my three others and the base will cease to exist. So, I have addressed this note to myself, to the human me whose DNA, stretching back down through the generations of human existence, will end up as the model for the clone all humanity will become. This is it, this is the tipping point...

There is a loud thud and the double glazing shudders as a wood pigeon flounders against the glass, wings frantically beating to stop it's forward momentum. For an instant it is helpless in it's course into the window but at the last moment before the pane must surely smash, it gains lift and banks away into the mist, leaving a perfect, dusty imprint of itself on the window. The noise has jolted me to the core, as though I am falling. I glance back to the letter but now there are only thin cobwebs of black drifting over yellowing pages of paper turning into dust front of my eyes. For a moment or two I cannot work out what the noise I can hear is but then I realise, the alarm clock radio is blaring and I surface to the morning from the depths of sleep.

By the evening the dream has receded deep into my memory, just the vague uncomfortableness of a restless night remains and I turn on the tv after a microwave lasagne and a glass of wine. There is a nature programme on about how there are now only 1000 tigers left in the wild. Somewhere, far off in the recesses of my brain, this figure strikes a chord and I ponder for a moment what this figure could mean. But still, as the programme points out, there are plenty of tigers in the zoos and all kinds of plans for reintroduction, for new tiger ranges, it's not like we're going to kill them all for food or sport. It's not like we are going to treat them the way we did with the dodo, we know far better than that nowadays, don't we?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Short Story ~ Pen Pals

(Another short fiction story written a couple of years ago.)

Pen Pals

I’m the first to admit it, I’m an average person. I have an average life. I have a steady job with a middle income in a middle sized insurance company. This has led to a nice house that my wife, Savannah, has turned into a home for our two kids, Alice and Jack. I’m forty three, in reasonable shape and my name is David. We have two cars and a mortgage that, with any luck, will be paid in eleven years time. We go on two holidays a year and spend every Christmas with my family. In fact, I’m so average and not worth noting that you should have stopped reading by now except….
Except that any minute now, despite me not really comprehending it, my average little life is going to change beyond all recognition and the old proverbial is going to hit the fan. Big time.

It’s Christmas, a wet, dull Christmas this year and we have just pulled up outside my parent’s house. It’s a big red brick Victorian place bequeathed to my mum by her parents and it’s where me, my two older brothers, Julian and Simon and my sister, Louise all grew up. We are the last to arrive and the drive is already full of cars. Louise is busy unloading presents and bags from her little two-seater sports coupe. Louise is two years older than me and completely not average. She’s a high flyer. A creative entrepreneur who, by thirty, had made her first million and now runs her own international design company. You’ve probably heard of her, in fact, you are probably drinking your decaf out of one her mugs right now. Good for her, I’m not jealous; in fact she employs Savannah as a home tester for her kitchen products. It’s great to have the second income but sometimes, it would be nice if Louise was just a bit more…average. Alice and Jack adore her.

I unpack the luggage after a round of hugs and hellos. My parents usher us through into the conservatory at the back of the house where my two brothers are. They are twins and are four years older than Louise, six years older than me. It’s a big age gap and we don’t have much in common. They have both been married twice and divorced once. Their second wives are the type who play golf at the weekend and do lunch in London. Lucy and Andrea. Julian is a college lecturer. Simon is an editor for a publishing house. Like Louise, they have no children; I’m the only one with kids. This, as far as my parents are concerned is my one redeeming feature, I gave them grandchildren.

The conservatory is a sprawling glass structure reaching out into the garden and full of palms and orchids and old cane furniture. Pride of place is the Christmas tree, a Norwegian spruce, covered with fairy lights and dripping with silvered glass balls and stalactites. Louise and the kids are in raptures over it and Dad is organising drinks for everyone. Lucy, Andrea and Savannah are helping Mum with arranging presents under the tree while in the corner of the room the twins are chatting in front of the TV. The TV is, as usual, on the news channel with the picture flickering from story to story, the sound on mute. I wander over to the twins to say hello and I am stopped midway across the room by the picture on the TV screen, or rather the caption running under it. It is the name that stops me, makes my heart start racing, and my palms begin to sweat. Amy Sturdle. It’s a name I could never forget.
Julian and Simon pause mid sentence and, with their strange ETP (extraordinary-twin-perception) both stare at me gawping at the TV screen, frozen to the spot like some sad middle-aged mime. Amy Sturdle.
‘David? You OK?’ ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ Julian and Simon finish each others sentences as only twins or people married for years can.
‘Oh, uh, fine Julian, Simon. I think I left a bottle of Scotch for Dad in the car. Never mind…I’ll get it later. So how are you?’
‘Fine, fine.’
Over Julian’s shoulder I can see the TV screen still featuring a picture of a woman at a book signing. Underneath the caption reads, ‘Set to be an overnight literary sensation, with her first book already a bestseller, Amy Sturdle’s vivid and moving biography follows the harrowing tragic life of her childhood pen friend, based on the many letters written to her over the years. Already in talks with Hollywood…’
‘…and the children look well. David, are you sure you are okay?’ I drag my eyes away from the screen back to the twins’ conversation.
‘What? Sorry! Just wondering what the fuss about that book is. Not one of yours is it Simon?’
‘Hmm?’ Simon glances at the screen. ‘Oh, no, the Sturdle thing, no but wouldn’t have minded if it was. Set to be the book of the year and it’s barely been released. Another misery memoir but, because it has that novelty aspect, with the letters from the dead pen friend… Ah, here’s Dad with the drinks.’
I take the proffered glass with trembling hands. Amy Sturdle had written a book about her dead pen friend. The only problem was her pen friend was alive and well. Louise wanders over. ‘Are you alright David? You look a little stressed?’ She glances at the twins with raised eyebrows but they shrug their shoulders. Oh yes, Amy’s tragic dead pen pal was well and truly alive because she was the millionaire business women standing right in front of me, only Louise doesn’t know that she’s Amy’s pen friend because the person who wrote all those tragic, dreadful letters was me. I can’t think of anything to say to Louise, I’m too busy praying that Amy Sturdle changed the name of her pen friend in her book.
I need to regroup my thoughts and dash off up to the bedroom, claiming I have eaten a dodgy sandwich at work yesterday, locking myself into the en-suite where I sit, shaking and cursing on the loo. I try convincing myself it was alright, after all, who would equate the Louise in the book with our Louise. There must be loads of Louise Smith’s in the world. They were worlds apart. I could barely remember half of what I had written over the years but every time my sister had achieved some new success, my fictional Louise had some disaster.
It would be fine. I take a few deep breaths. I stop shaking. I splash water on my face. It will be fine, really.

The next morning is grey and murky but no one notices. My parents are entertained by the kids opening their presents from Santa. Everyone is busy either cooking, eating or drinking until, at 1.00pm we all sit down at the long table set up in the conservatory to accommodate us all. By now the Amy Sturdle book is beginning to shrink in my mind to little more than an unfortunate coincidence and I am temporarily lulled into a false sense of security by an ample supply of wine and turkey with all the trimmings. Family tradition has it, that after the Queen’s Speech, the main present giving takes place around the Christmas tree. I leave the present buying to Savannah, for the simple reason that she is really good at getting people what they want whereas I am hopeless at it. This year she excels herself. For mum an orchid, for Dad an almanac of world news and so on until we get to Louise’s present. It is book-shaped. For a second or two I am happy, the rosy, content, over-indulged happiness that comes from eating a good meal with your family and then Louise unwraps her book.
‘Oh, well done Savannah, fantastic choice!’ No one even pretends anymore that I have anything to do with the present buying. ‘I’ve been itching to get hold of this. Did you know I nearly had a pen friend once, years ago, when we went on that holiday in Cornwall, do you remember Mum? Anyway, I often wondered what would have happened if we had kept in touch…’ the rest washes over me as my heart turns to ice at the words pen friend. Savannah had bought her Amy’s book.
The present opening continues and Louise places the unopened book on top of her growing pile of gifts. Soon there is a blizzard of wrapping paper across the room and presents strewn all over the place. People drink coffee or champagne and chat and, on the pretext of getting up to find the TV remote, I manage to kick Louise’s book under the chair hoping that once out if sight, it would be out of mind. Later still, when Louise is engrossed in a game of ‘Articulate!’ with Alice and Jack, I retrieve the book and lock myself in the en-suite again to find out just how bad the damage is. The pale blue front cover features a photo of a silver locket opened to reveal a picture of a dog who stares at me with unwavering accusatory eyes. I start to read:

‘Pen Pal
By Amy Sturdle
Foreword by the Author
This memoir is based on the letters written to me by dear friend and confidante, Louise, over the course of thirty years. I hope, by illuminating the tragic circumstances of her life and the way she dealt with it, she will give others hope in their hour of need and that her sad death, at the untimely age of forty three, will not go unremembered…’

I stop reading. Any warm glow from dinner is turning instead to a fiery acid eating into my guts, I return to the page and scan through but there is no mention of Louise’s surname. I read the first few pages, they are all too familiar in content, the whole book being laid out in the style of correspondence but apart from that, there is little actual evidence of who Louise really is. I start to relax slightly; I might actually get away with Louise not realising it is about her. There is a knock at the door and Savannah asks if I’m coming back downstairs because the pudding is about to be served.
‘Uh, yes, just revenge of the sandwich again, I’ll be fine. I’ll be down in a minute.’
When I return to the conservatory, the room is in darkness save for the lights on the Christmas tree and the flaming pudding Mum is carrying through to the table. In the semi-darkness I slide the book back under the chair, out of sight and out of mind.

It is the summer of 1977 and I am twelve and obnoxious. There is no point denying it. My brothers are off cycling round France and it is just me and Louise left at home so Mum and Dad take us for two weeks in August to Cornwall. We rent a small caravan on a farm campsite a mile from the sea and I spend my days looking for crabs and shells in the rock pools at the beach and dripping rich yellow ice-cream down my legs while gawking at the sunbathers on the beach. That is, when I’m not trailing after Louise and making her life miserable.
On the second week of our holiday the next lot of campers arrive, a cavalcade of caravans and cars pulling trailers full of the latest camping gear. One car that arrives has a girl in it about Louise’s age. There are no children my age. As soon as they shyly swap names while buying sweets at the farm shop it is obvious that they hit it off and are soon best friends which means that as far as I am concerned, I can clear off and leave them alone. But I have other plans.
‘Other plans’ include following them and pinging them from time to time with chewed up pieces of paper blown through the case of an empty plastic biro and threatening to tell Mum and Dad every time they saunter along the harbour wall, making eyes at the local lads busy mending nets and hauling up lobster pots
for the trawlers. Needless to say, Louise and I argue a lot about my plans
for the week.
On the second from last day it rains so I trail after them to the cinema where they meet up with a couple of boys and spend the matinee performance snogging them three rows from the back. In disgust I sit behind them and decide to use bits of ‘Bubbly’ gum in my biro shooter which sticks remarkably well in Louise’s long, curly layered hair. Later, back at the caravan, Mum slowly tries to tease out the bubble gum out of Louise’s hair, it doesn’t work. As she gets out a pair of scissors to cut Louise’s hair and Louise starts to cry, I begin to realise I might well be in big trouble this time. Really big trouble.
I am grounded for the rest of the holiday and will have to pay for Louise to have a proper haircut when we get back home, out of my paper round money. I work out it will take three months of paper rounds to pay for it. Not only that, because Louise refuses to stop crying like a complete girl for a whole day, I am banned from going to the cinema again for six whole months. (It means at Christmas I miss out on seeing ‘Star Wars’ with my friends and become the only kid in the class who didn’t see it at the time.) Not good. I declare war on my sister for the remainder of the cinema ban and by war, I mean war.
Whereas I can really harbour a good grudge, Louise is the kind of girl who quickly moves on from any event in her life so, by the time we arrive back home, despite her shorn locks and promises to always stay in touch for ever with Amy, the holiday is already receding into the back of her mind at the prospect of the ‘new boy’ in her class and changing her Bay City Roller posters. When the first postcard arrives from Amy it is easy for me to sneak it into my parka as I leave for my early morning paper round and after that, to keep intercepting all Amy’s letters so that, by Christmas, Louise has forgotten all about her pen pal.
It was the first postcard that did it. I should have just torn it up and put it in the bin or, even better, snuck it back onto the table in the hall when no one was looking but instead, I read it:
‘Dear Louise,
Hope you got back OK. I’ve heard from Chris!!! Can you believe that! I’m not writing back – let him pine for me 4 ever! Was really upset you had to have your hair cut after the cinema incident! Hope the loathsome toad-creature (LTC) got into lots of trouble!!!!
Best friends for ever, write soon,
Amy xxx (SWABS - sent with a big smile)’

Loathsome toad creature! What was I supposed to do? I would make them sorry for that nickname. That night I wrote back to Amy, trying to make it sound like I was my sister.
‘Dear Amy,
Thanks for the postcard. David had to pay for me to have a proper haircut using the money for his paper round. He decided to take on an extra round as well to pay it off quicker. Last week he didn’t come back from his new round. There had been an accident on a very busy road. We are all in a state of shock. The funeral is next week.
Best friends for ever,
I had been very proud of that phrase ‘we are all in a state of shock’, I had heard Mum use it once and thought it leant a nice touch of gravity to my note. I posted the letter the next day and that was that. From then on, I would intercept any incoming mail from Amy and write back to her as Louise and every time Louise got me into trouble, excelled at something better than me or generally just annoyed me, I’d write another letter to Amy with the next desperate saga of my imaginary Louise. I must admit, if nothing else, I have a very vivid imagination.

It is two days after the Christmas break and I am sitting in my office at lunchtime, having just dashed back from the local bookstore, staring at the cover of Amy Sturdle’s book. I have opened the book randomly twice already and tried to start reading but each time I can feel horror well up in me and my hands recoil from the page I’ve landed on. Each time, as I let go, the pages fan out and then the book snaps shut with the soft thud. Did I really write that? Did I really write that?
I have to read it, Savannah emailed this morning to say Louise was on her way over with a new job offer for her. This meant they would have time to talk about the book, if Louise had read it. I try again, this time from the beginning, trying to read it objectively. By the time I am ten pages in, my hands are sweating profusely. Two hours later I have finished it. I shall spare you the details but will instead outline the life story of my fictional Louise.

After I had written that brief postcard outlining my death, my next letter detailed how my fictional family had taken it very badly indeed. Within a year my parents’ relationship fell apart, Dad became work-obsessed, Mum became a reclusive alcoholic. By the following summer Dad had walked out, running off abroad with his young secretary and leaving Louise and Mum alone and penniless. Mum took to having dodgy boyfriends who, while supplying her with booze, variously made Louise’s life hell. One was an emotional bully, one used to beat her and then one abused her. To deal with it, Louise started to run away from home and fell in with the wrong crowd. Within four years, fictional Louise was an alcoholic teenager living rough when in reality she had just passed her A levels with A grades.
During her twenties, fictional Louise variously had an abortion or two, overcame her addiction to alcohol, finally tracked down her father, now a successful businessman abroad who promptly disowned her. Lost her mother (who died from cirrhosis of the liver after being admitted to hospital in a coma with a broken neck after falling down the stairs during a drunken brawl with yet another boyfriend) and had a miscarriage when her drug-dealing boyfriend dumped her.
In her thirties, while my sister’s business went from success to success, my Louise buried her two remaining brothers who were killed instantly in a car crash on a holiday of a lifetime, (they had suffered with various ill health throughout their short lives, due to being involved in a freak industrial accident at the factory they had both worked in.) was made redundant twice, lost her flat to negative equity and ended back up living rough on the streets. By the time I hit my mid-thirties, fictional Louise was back to drinking and turning tricks to survive and the letters to Amy had dwindled to one or two a year. In truth I was fed up of it. This pen friend thing had run its course and I no longer enjoyed writing the secret letters. So, when my sister turned forty-three, I killed off my fictional Louise.
She had just won her battles with breast cancer and the council for a new home and had taken in a stray dog she named ‘Victory’ who was turning into a loyal companion. She found a job as a drugs counsellor and set-up a soup kitchen, when Dad reappeared on the scene. His business had failed and his second wife had run off with a corrupt business partner of his. She had the greatest of pleasure telling him to clear off and was not the remotest bit remorseful when he washed up on a beach a few weeks later. But, despite all this change to her fortunes, disaster struck and my Louise contracted a superbug while at a routine check-up. Within two weeks she was dead. Of course, I had to forge a letter from the coroner’s office, there being no family left to write and tell Amy. I enclosed a cheap little silver locket on a chain with a picture of ‘Victory’ in it (I had cut it out of one of those missing dog ads that are regularly posted in the local Advertiser) as a final bequest from Louise and that, I had thought, was the end of that. How wrong could I be?

The book is well written, heartfelt but not overly mawkish and, while there is no attempt made to hide the identity of the main character, there is little content about location of the family or when the events took place. I try to reassure myself that it could be any of hundreds of Louise Smith’s up and down the country, even if Louise had read it, she may not suspect it’s meant to be her. By the end of the day I have soothed my nerves and leave the office early, convinced the book isn’t a problem.
I arrive home and pull up behind Louise’s coupe that is still parked outside the house. I’m sure Savannah had said Louise was popping over to talk to her in the morning. From the road the house lights blare out from every window, casting strange shadows across the front lawn. Not a single curtain is pulled and the front door is open. As I sit in the car, a figure emerges from the door lugging a large suitcase and loads it into the boot of Savannah’s car. It is Louise. Then, she is followed by the kids, each with a bag. I stare for a moment or two unable to comprehend what is going on, then, with wave of panic I am propelled out of my car and up the drive, at a run, to find Savannah at the front door with another bag. She pushes past me as I try and grab her arm, missing and stumbling at the same time, ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. She stops, mid-step and turns to me. The light from the doorway illuminates her expression with stark clarity. ‘How could you. Your own sister. Your mother, how could you write such stuff about her? What were you thinking…’ the anger and pain in her voice is a knife in my belly and I am paralysed with fear and confusion.
She loads the bag into the boot. As she walks back past me she announces coolly, ‘We will be staying at your mother’s until I decide what is best for us to do. Do not try and contact us there.’
As I stand on the doorstep, Louise bundles Alice and Jack past me, shushing their questions and helps them into the back of Savannah’s car. Then she turns and stares thoughtfully at me for a moment or two.
‘I don’t know why you did it, David…you must really hate me. Anyhow, I’ve contacted the publisher; the matter is now in the hands of their solicitors. I expect they will contact you in the next day or so, as will mine.’
Savannah reappears, carrying her jewellery box, she doesn’t even look at me as she climbs into her car and reverses off the drive, pausing long enough for Savannah to pull out in her coupe and then they are gone.

The next few weeks pass by in a fog of empty misery as lawyers and solicitors fire phone calls and letters at each other and Savannah and my family refuse any contact with me. Amy Sturdle’s literary reputation is in tatters as the ‘true story’ turns out be a work of fiction and the public’s affection turns tide into a wave of angry condemnation and I am threatened with legal action from the publishers, Amy Sturdle and my sister on behalf of my family. I am let go by my insurance company as they cite my behaviour bringing them into ill repute not to mention my erratic office hours and my car is repossessed. The weeks stretch into months, Savannah and I formally separate, my parents disown me, Savannah and Louise move in together, I am allowed to see the kids once a month, the house is put on the market and the lawyers sit back and wait for their pay checks as agreements are reached. Savannah and the publishing house decide that any more publicity is bad for business and, as I move into a hostel, it occurs to me that my life is beginning to echo my fictional Louise’s. I have lost everything and am at rock bottom.

A few days later, on a sunny summer morning, I am sitting at my usual table in the corner of a cafĂ© near the river, eating a breakfast of egg and sausage and nursing a mug of weak tea. In front of me is a letter from my solicitor, it states that I am being sued by the real dog owners of the fictional ‘Victory’, and that the photo I used without permission in the locket was of their pet. The subsequent stress and anguish arising from the use of the photo on the book cover had forced them to seek compensation. Their dog, a pedigree champion called ‘Inestimable Fancy, Prince Handsome the Third’ known affectionately as ‘Han’ was stolen, ransomed but never returned, presumed dead. Their compensation claim was substantial. My solicitor’s advice was to declare bankruptcy. I find, when I notice that my hand is shaking and spilling tea, that I am both laughing and crying silently at the same time. The girl behind the counter scowls at me. My life is beyond tragedy and is now a comedy and I sit there, laughing and crying at the pointless absurdity of it all until a voice brings me back sharply to my senses. Someone has sat down opposite me and is watching me as I try and wipe away the tears and compose myself.
‘They said at the hostel I would find you here,’ she turns to the girl behind the counter and asks for a cup of coffee before adding, ‘I’m Amy, Amy Sturdle.’ She smiles a clipped, sad smile and I recognise her from the TV, although the style and colour of her hair has changed.
‘Look, you’ll have to talk to my solicitors if you want any more money. But I warn you I’m going to be declaring bankruptcy.’
She does not answer as the girl brings over her coffee.
‘Why are you here?’
‘Well, I was very angry with you, to begin with and then, as things unfolded I..., well I started to write again. Only this time the whole story, how you forged the letters. How the publishers bailed out, having my career ruined, the public condemnation, you losing everything, your life in ruins…’ She sips at her coffee and I notice her neat, shaped nails.
‘It turns out to be a much better story than your letters ever were but…’
‘It’s written from your perspective…with you as the main character. Your fall from grace…’
‘Great.’ I reply sarcastically. ‘I wish you well. Want did you want?’
‘I want your permission to ghost write your account of what happened. We can sell this story…I have already had an offer from Hollywood…a huge offer. As a team, we can make a fortune; this is much bigger than that memoir ever was. They want to make a film. A proper ‘A’ list film.’
She smiles the sad little smile again and hands over a manuscript and a card. ‘Look, read what I have so far and then call me.’
I stare at the manuscript as she starts to leave.
‘Wait!’ I call after her as she reaches the door. ‘Here, you might want to read this.’ I hand her my solicitor’s letter about the dog and she quickly scans it. Then, slowly, she starts to giggle and then laugh which sets me off laughing and crying again as I notice around her neck is the little silver locket containing the photo of Victory.

Three weeks later and here I am, packing a small suitcase of clothes and checking my passport is still valid. Amy and I are on our way to Los Angeles to finalise a deal with the studio executives. It includes worldwide rights on a film and book deal, plus a percentage of merchandising and plans for a sequel, a play and a musical. Amy was right. It is the deal of a lifetime. On the plane she hands me her finished first draft. I open the cover and look at the title, Pen Pals. I turn to the first page and start reading and I don’t stop till I reach the end, because it turns out, despite first appearances, there is nothing average about me or my life after all.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Reading matter for 2011

In the hope that I will actually get down to some reading this year I thought I'd note down the books on my reading list for 2011 (so far!).

Kate Mosse ~ The Winter Ghosts

Elizabeth Gilbert ~ Eat Pray Love

Ian McEwan ~ Solar

Carlos Ruiz Zafon ~ The Angel's Game

William Boyd ~ Brazzaville Beach

Robert Harris ~ Lustrum

Watching the winter garden

Winter arrived in November with a blizzard of siberian proportions, leaving behind a garden hidden from view, blanketed in deep snow. Over the last few months the snow and sleet, mist and fog, murky and freezing days have reminded me how temperate and pleasant our weather normally is.

Today is one of those rare, frosty blue-skied days that have been lacking so far this winter. But in every snow-laden storm cloud there is a silver lining and for a few months the garden has been full of birds.

Robin, wren, dunnock, wood pigeon, collared dove, blue tit, great tit, chaffinch, woodpecker, jay, magpie, starling, blackbird, thrush, the list goes on and it's been a delight to get to see these birds, not hidden shyly on a background of green but up close on the bird feeders and table. Keeping the bird bath unfrozen has been almost impossible, keeping the squirrels from running off with the fatballs they have pilfered from the hanging feeder absolutely impossible.

The garden has emerged from the snow over the last couple of weeks, dreary and bowed, the remnants of autumn leaves now a sludge across the lawn and various shrubs and plants broken and dead from the weight of snow and overnight temperatures that dropped into double figures below freezing. All around the remnants of last year's autumn still clinging to branches and fences, uncleared before the snow fell. But already I can see new growth and the delightful pale green of new shoots as the garden decides, for now, this winter tempest is over.

(click on photo for larger image)

snowfall over garden

cold buffet

robin and dunnock on buddleja globosa

willow covered in frost

ivy covered in frost

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Final Vote ~ Short Story

Sci-Fi Short story written a few years ago.

The Final Vote

October 22nd 2007

‘And this works?’
‘Yes, it does. It’s very simple really. The fusion of the two technologies has been very successful. I think you’ll find the nanobiobes are a valid and effective inclusion into this new entry system you propose. Nano tagging is the way forward.’
Dr. Harris Hope leans back in his chair, fingertips lightly pressed together, elbows resting on the polished granite slab that passes for a conference table. In front of him, his computer screen takes a second or two to refresh; they were clearly trying to reach a decision. Well, he could wait. He had waited before.
The screen reloads and this time Dr. Salts’ face is sweaty and tense. ‘The board would like a little time to think through their decision… a matter of determining the ethics. Can we extend the offer period at all?’
Harris stifles a laugh, to be concerned with ethics at this late stage was ludicrous. ‘Take as long as you need Dr. Salt, the offer stands till midnight tonight.’ As he leans forward to switch off the video link, Harris can see the visible relief on Salts’ face. The man was clearly under pressure. Ethics, indeed. Culpability more like. But they’d buy it in the end even if they shelved it. They had to. Otherwise the technology would go to their competitors. Harris sighs and runs a hand over the cold marble. He had six hours before he needed to be back on the secure video link. Just time to get into town for dinner.
Harris retrieves a small portable phone from his jacket pocket and texts his favourite restaurant. They have his table free at nine which leaves him enough time to shower, change and maybe ring Martiece.

Dr. Parson Salt sighs and turns off the flat screen panel and the freeze-frame face of Harris Hope shrinks to a pixel then vanishes. Behind him the board are in deep discussion already about the new technology. Nanobiobes. Infinitesimally small bio-engineered organisms, fusing micro-replicating viral electronics and biological tracers into intelligent markers, ready to be activated at the unique signature pressure of the fingerprint. Electronic tagging was nothing new. Nanobots were nothing new. The genius lay in combining the two technologies. An intelligent marker virus, activated at the touch of an individual fingerprint, jumping from the touch pad to it’s new host. Replicating and mutating at a specific rate in the microscopic terrain of the fingertip. Invisible to the naked eye, unobtrusive. Yet every touch pad in the system would immediately be calibrating the same rate of mutation and only, only the fingerprint containing the right sequence for that particular period in time would be viable. It also relied on a live host. Dr. Hope’s nano tagging system was, admittedly, only an add-on security feature but nevertheless, not one they can ignore. These days, even fingerprint scans were being deemed as unsafe. Parson blamed the movies, all those fingers being chopped off, public perception had been tainted, leading to distrust of the technology and falling sales. The Portal Security Access Company (PSAC) was in trouble. Big trouble. Retinal scanning technology was being heralded as the holy grail of security entry systems and their main competitor I-Scan-U-Safe had the patents sewn up. Their legal department had spent a year looking for loopholes but there were none. PSAC had to make their touch screen panels and keypads as effective and tamperproof as the retinal scan and Dr. Hope’s research seemed to provide just that solution.
He checks his watch, only six hours to go, then he calls the meeting to order. They needed to decide and decide fast in order to secure this technology from their competitors.

Martiece is ready and waiting as Harris pulls up outside her front door. She smiles as he holds the car door open for her and comments on how beautiful she looks.
‘Harris, you’re an angel. But to be quite honest, you didn’t leave much time for me to get ready in. Are we celebrating tonight?’
‘Yes, well, not yet. Anyway, if this deal goes through tonight I shall be a very wealthy man. Will you marry me, then?’
‘No, not for all the gold in the sea. How rich? Richer than me?’ Martiece smoothes her skirt back over her thighs and snaps the seatbelt into its catch. Then, retrieving a small mirror from her purse, proceeds to shape her eyebrows with her index finger.
Harris watches her for a moment before answering, it was impossible to tell what she was thinking sometimes. ‘No one is as rich as you.’
Martiece laughs at his reply, ‘Actually there are about half a dozen people in this country who are and that’s before we get to the rest of the world.’
‘Well, rich by my standards, if not yours.’
‘You don’t need to be rich, Harris, I quite like you as the poor struggling inventor. So, where are we eating?’
‘The Pickled Egg, where else?’

Parson glances at his watch again. It is twelve minutes past nine and they have stopped the discussion for a much-needed break. They would reconvene at nine-thirty. Instead of following the others to a nearby suite of rooms where there was a buffet already waiting, he heads for his office and straight for his small, private bathroom. Once there, he locks the door and, in its sound-proofed safety, calls a number on his mobile phone. The number is unavailable. He waits for a few minutes and then tries again. Still no connection. He shakes his head and then, seeing his reflection in the mirror, runs a sinkful of warm water and proceeds to freshen up. He would try and get hold of Martiece again in a few minutes.

The Pickled Egg is as good as ever. Harris always enjoys the understated ambience of the place and tonight is no exception. Just as the lobster arrives, Martiece’s mobile starts ringing and she smiles apologetically and answers, gesturing to Harris to continue without her.
‘Hi, yes, it’s me. Darling, can you hold for a moment… Harris, I’m going to have to take this call, carry on, do. I’ll be in the lobby.’ and she leaves the table, her napkin sliding to the floor from her lap. Harris reaches down to retrieve it and by the time he returns it to the table she has left the main room of the restaurant for the private lobby.
‘Martiece, I need to know if he’s got any other companies on board over this. We’re pushing the deadline as it is to reach an agreement and I don’t want to have to lie to the board. But I can only make the deal on the referendum franchise if I can promise this new technology. Otherwise the contract will go to I-Scan-U-Safe. Retinal scanning is burying us.’
‘I’ll try and find out for you darling but you must understand its not easy…’
‘Just find out, Martiece and get back to me before midnight. I pay you more than enough.’
‘Ok, ok, I’ll find out.’

Harris is losing his appetite for lobster, its not quite the same trying to eat it on your own. Martiece returns looking angry. ‘Everything ok?’ Harris gives up trying to crack open a claw.
‘Yes, fine. So sorry, just business. Talking of which, tell me about your big deal tonight.’ She smiles and the anger lifts away from her face and Harris, with half a bottle of good wine in him, cannot help but think how beautiful she is.
‘I’d rather talk about you.’
Martiece laughs and sips her wine thoughtfully, ‘No, but if this deal falls through, will you be really set back? Is there some way I can help? Financially I mean?’
‘Well, if does fall through, I simply go to their competitors with it. I’m pretty confident it won’t but thanks for the offer.’
‘So, single client, then. Not in some bidding war?’
‘No, no. No point. Someone will buy the technology and for the right price. More lobster?’
Martiece shakes her head and wonders how soon she can leave the table again without arousing suspicion.
After the main course is cleared she makes her excuses and calls Parson. He answers after two rings. Martiece can hear the anxiety in his voice.
‘You’re ok, so far as there’s only you in the running. But after midnight he’ll be approaching your rival.’
‘Martiece, that’s great, I’m going to double your fee for this!’
Martiece swiftly rings off and then sighs. No wonder PSAC was going down the drain, Salt was far too trusting. And, since her loyalty could always be bought, it always went to the highest bidder. She dials a new number from memory and is put through almost immediately to Gregory Church. Church was paying her ten times the amount Salt was, usually a fair indication that whatever he wanted the information for, it wasn't legal.
‘The deal will go through by midnight.’ She immediately terminates the call and then, spying a large tropical fish tank in the lobby, drops the phone gently behind the rock ledges. It disappears from view. From her handbag she retrieves an identical looking mobile and returns to the table.
‘Harris, my darling, I’m afraid I seem to have some trouble tonight and have to rush off back to the office, you couldn’t drop me back at home could you?’ Harris looks peeved but does his best to hide it.
‘Of course, shame though. I was enjoying the meal.’
‘We can do this another time. I’m sorry about your celebration but you probably should be getting back anyhow?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’ Harris gets up from the table reluctantly and calls for their coats.

Parson, buoyed up from Martiece’s news, finds it easy to swing the views of the board to his way of thinking. The ethics were a pill. Legally, they would be able to sell the technology with the onus for disclosure firmly resting with the company buying the product. What that company did, or didn’t tell their employees was up to them. Legally, PSAC would be in the clear as long as they fully informed their clients of all the risks involved. Spying, industrial espionage, infringement of civil liberties, these would all be the dilemmas facing their clients. A rather monumental corporate pass-the-buck. Bitter, but not too hard to swallow and the board, with the added sweetener of the referendum franchise, reached an agreement by eleven twenty-three p.m.

Sunday, February 13th 2008

The referendum voting system was unique. Old paper ballots and locked tin boxes in parish town halls and schools were being replaced with touch pad screens at supermarkets, post offices, garages and libraries. National voting was about to go online as secure computer lines fed information back to a network of computers, housed in local council offices. These, in turn, reported back to a national data bank where the results could be finally tallied and ratified by independent inspectors. And, with the inclusion of the nanobiobe technology, fiddling the vote via multi-voting either by accident or on purpose, would be eliminated. The government was proud to herald in the new technology and PSAC’s touch screen voting panel technology had afforded the most economical, tamperproof solution. The first and possibly the biggest vote was about to take place on the Monday. Gregory Church slips into his stolen uniform in the back of the nondescript white van he has parked outside the only supermarket in the main street of Pindlehay. He picks up a clipboard with spurious paperwork and a small plastic briefcase and then climbs back into the front of the van and opens the door. No one even notices him as enters the supermarket and heads for the supervisor’s desk.
‘..Oh, yes, the referendum unit is over here. Been having trouble have they, with the tests? Wouldn’t surprise me at all. Don’t know how many people round here will trust it tomorrow. I don’t hold with this kind of thing really, ballot papers are much better. So, will you need anything else?’ The name on her supervisor badge reads Janet.
‘No Janet, that’s all. I can connect to the mainframe from this end. Should be about half an hour.’ Gregory watches her turn as a bell rings on one of the checkouts and smiles to himself. The shop, as he had predicted, was reasonably busy as it was a Sunday. He would go largely unnoticed, just another technician installing more equipment. Within minutes he had bypassed the security codes and logged into the local council office terminal. No one would be working in the offices today, it being Sunday and the computer, with the information coming from a validated source rather than being hacked in, would accept his new programme without raising any alarms. It was an easy enough bit of programming. For every yes vote, the touch screen would tag the fingerprint, not with nanobiobes already built into the screen, but with a new hybrid generation he would create in a moment. A mutation to the viral code which the nanobiobes would find irresistible and immediately start replicating. And the genius of the system was that it was linked in its whole entirety and once it all went online on Monday, the re-coding programme would infect the whole system within minutes and the nanobiobes would start replicating and tagging almost immediately. He carefully types in the new code, a bio-patent for a new and lethal influenza. This referendum was going to be more than a landmark for national voting, it was going to be the start of the end.

Dr. Harris Hope lies back in his bath and peruses the Sunday newspaper. Outside, through the huge windows of the atrium he can see the steam rising up from the rolling fields as the sun burns through the low river mist. The headlines were mainly about the referendum tomorrow and he makes a mental note to stop in at the supermarket in Pindlehay on his way to the office to vote. It would be fun to use the technology he had helped to create.

Friday 18th February 2008

Martiece sips her champagne cocktail and dips her toes gingerly into the ice bucket at the side of her sun lounger. The ice is instantly refreshing against her skin and she smiles as she rereads the lead story under international news on her laptop’s internet browser. England seemed far away and almost forgotten as her boat pulls into the harbour in Sydney.

‘Millions Infected as Flu Spreads like Wildfire.
Widespread panic ensues amid government calls for calm as an epidemic of a virulent and as yet unknown, strain of flu grips the nation. Army troops are mobilised as looting and lawlessness spreads from inner cities out into the countryside. Temporary morgues are being set up in town halls and schools as the death toll mounts into the thousands. All schools, public institutions, public transport systems and airports remain closed as the country grinds to a halt. The government is holding crisis talks amid growing fears of there being no cure for this dreadful contagion.’
Beneath the lead article, a much smaller headline grabs her attention,
‘Referendum a Failure.
Less than a third of the population turned out on Monday to take part in the first national referendum via touch screen voting. Such poor turn out figures could spell the end for touch screen voting.’
Martiece chuckles to herself, logs off the computer and pours herself another drink.