Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Fuel Wars – A Vignette

“And the last flame has gone out.” The announcer spoke the words that the world had been waiting for.
Smith turned off the television and stared blankly at the screen. That was it then. It was quieter than he imagined. It was the final death rattle of an industry that had changed the world for over 200 years.

And then the sirens sounded. He casually switched on the television again to see the same announcer wearing a flak jacket and military helmet over her tailored suit and coiffeured hair, looking as though she was reporting from a distant warzone and not a very very safe studio.

“We are at war,” she announced solemnly. “The fuel wars have begun.” Smith turned off the television again, stood up, walked to the fridge, took out a cold beer can and in one fluid motion opened it, drained it and crushed it, before reaching for another.

Slowly, he walked to his window, put on a pair of black rimmed sunglass and pulled open the blackout blinds that had been keeping the intense midday sun out of his apartment. From the 85th floor of his tower block he could see for miles. That’s why the Company had given it to him. It was why the Company had built the edifice and bought the freehold to the surrounding two kilometers of city. The Company gave its employees all the floors from the 40th to the 86th, and executives like Smith were given the highest, above him was a conference room. From his circular penthouse, he had a 365 degree view to way beyond the city limits, and out into the desert. Right now he could see the bright orange flames and black smoke of explosions at the Company oil fields. He spoke softly.
“Dial.” A telephone’s dial toned filled the air. “Jones,” he said, and the artificial sound of a phone being dialed replaced the dial tone.
“Jones here,” came a voice through the ether.
“Jones, its Smith. You watching the fireworks?”
“What’s the situation on the ground?”
“All staff evacuated last night, surface level fuel depots empty and fuel stored two k's below. No collateral damage.”
“Excellent. Do we know who started this?”
“Missile sigs suggest a government.”
“Do we know which one?”
“Yup” Jones replied as though he was chewing a corn stalk.
“Fucking hayseeds” thought Smith.
“Call Davis and initiate retaliation. Hang up.” and the room fell silent again.  

Smith closed the blind, and with his beer, returned to his seat in front of the television and switched it on.
“We have been attacked,” came the voice of the now quivering presenter from somewhere beneath a desk as the scenery behind her shook violently.
“Dial. Jones. Jones, Smith. Good job. Hang up.”
“I’ve never could stand that bitch.” He said to an empty room as he sipped his gently warming beer.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Trouble with the Joneses - A Harry Patterson short

“Oi that hurt. Stop it you crazy cow.”
That one was an orange onyx ashtray and it bounced off my shoulder before leaving a hole in the grass. Any higher and I’d have been lying spark out on the garden I was standing on.  

It all started a week before when I got called into my editor’s office after a few weeks of reporting on Christmas nativity scenes.

“Harry, Joe ‘Jawbreaker’ Jones, has been nicked, go and cover his trial and the impact on the community. Take Max with you for the photos when the trial ends.”
“Yes boss.”

I’d only been in the job a year, and this was my first real assignment. I’d covered court cases before as a trainee when I went and watched cases about minor stuff like shop lifting and drunks being wheeled out in front of a magistrate, but Mad Joe was serious. He and his family had been terrorizing the area for the last 20 years and he’d got away with it every time. He was a nutter. The case lasted a week and it was a foregone conclusion, he was going down and when the judge returned to pass sentence he was given five years. His family, sitting next to me, shouted and booed when the pronouncement was given and when I started to ask questions I was given a thinly veiled threat from one of the younger members of the family.

“Piss off unless you want your pretty little fingers broken,” was how he phrased it. My fingers are neither pretty nor little. These gnarled things had worked hard on my late father’s farm and good genes had made them the size of dinner plates, but I took his point and left it for a day or so to go and talk to some of his victims. They were scared, the family had long arms and they were keen that their protection racket wouldn’t stop funding their middle class lifestyle just because Pa had gone away for few years. A few “off the record” conversations with no names and no pack drill hadn’t given me enough for a paragraph, never mind the four columns that my editor expected for the Friday edition. I needed to do something drastic.

“Max, I need some decent snaps so I can build a story, let’s do some detective work.”

Max, was the same age as me and just getting started. Luckily he was as keen as I was stupid and he was up for any plan I had.

“Alright ‘arry what’s the plan?”

The plan, was to follow the little thug that had threatened me and find out what he was up to. He was easy enough to find, the ‘family’ drank in shithole of a pub where they were given free drinks in exchange for not burning the place down. Walking through the stained glass wooden doors we approached the bar and the place fell into the kind of deathly silence that would have allowed a gnat’s fart to be heard. All eyes fell upon us like the spotlights on an escaping prisoner and I leaned on the bar and ordered a couple of beers from the barman, who looked at one of the family, before being given the go ahead.
“What do you want, pal? I told you to get lost unless you want your hands broken.”
“I just want a drink is that so wrong?”
“Drink it and leave, it’s on the house.”

I expected as much and Max and I necked our pints before peeling my jacket sleeve from the sticky beer drenched bar and heading out into the frigid February air and into our car that parked up the road.

Three hours later and we were still there, feeling like castrated metal apes. 

“Jesus it’s cold,” I complained for twentieth time, as I breathed on my hands.
“Oh shut up ‘arry, it’s fuckin’ winter. You know it’s gonna last for another few months. Anyway I reckon he’ll be out soon, he must have something to do today.”

Max’s intuition was spot on and next time we looked up, this bloke and a couple of mates were leaving the pub. They climbed into a nearby Cosworth and had disappeared round the corner before my Montego had even got warm.

Just as we turned the corner, in the same direction that they’d gone, and cursing myself for not keeping the engine running we saw the same red RS being stopped by a Panda and the boot was open with a police officer holding, in his gloved hand, a sawn-off shotgun.

“That’s one for the good guys. Max, get a picture of that will you, I think I have my story, but first let’s go and tell the poor man’s mother.”

A five minute drive and we were outside Ma’s house and I knocked on the door.
“I know you. You were outside the court when my Frankie was sent down. Barry told you to get lost.”

“Yeah, I just saw him having a conversation with the policeman holding a shotgun. It seems like you may be losing a son as well. Now do you have anything to say for the Herald?”

She slammed the door in my face and the next thing I know pots, pans and a lot of abuse are being thrown at me from an upstairs window.

The photographs were great; especially the ones of me cowering behind my car after the ashtray nearly dislocated my shoulder and her other children speeding down the road to rescue Ma and coming over with baseball bats to damage my hands and Max’s camera. And we sped off for the good of our health.

Barry was locked up for a six months and I was given a death threat, which, after the windows on my car were broken, I took seriously enough to hand in my notice and see what Hong Kong could offer to a probationary hack. 

Copyright Stuart Carruthers 2013

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Happy Birthday - A short story

Happy Birthday              

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dearrrrrrrrrr Johhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnn, happy birthday to you.” A round of applause and John stared unblinkingly upon a bank of computer screens, CCTV cameras, cables and tubes with multi-colored liquids flowing through them; the rest of his body was encased in a shiny black sarcophagus that would bend and flex each of his 640 muscles.

The camera panned away and John’s family filed out of the small room that was adorned with streamers, balloons, banners and the paper string and plastic remnants of party poppers.

In John’s mind he was having a great time, he could see his family and talk to them whilst enjoying the taste of the best cake he could remember. As it was his 14th he was even allowed a small glass of sweet sparkling wine and it made him sleepy. After a while his mother and father left and he returned to school life.

“Ah that was nice,” said his mother, “do you think he’s happy?” That was the same question she asked every year at this time.

“Of course he is, he’s got the best life money can buy.” That was his father’s response to the same question.

The Academy was the place to send your children. Au pairs and nannies were considered old fashioned and even boarding schools had become passé for those who could afford something better.

Four years later it was graduation, one hundred pairs of parents gathered in the banqueting hall of one of the finest restaurants in the country and as the clock struck 1pm, 25 limousines began to drop the young adults at the front entrance where they were herded into the reception room. Once they were all there, an electronic fanfare was piped through a sound system and the dining room’s doors swung open.

The parents were aghast as their offspring nonchalantly, but confidently, walked through the doors. To a man they were all fit, slim, toned and tanned beneath perfectly tailored suits. Some of the mothers and fathers, not in the first flush of youth, gasped as they saw these healthy young men, who if they weren’t destined to become leaders of men would grace the covers of fashion magazines, enter the room and casually survey the area looking for their progenitors .

But behind them came John, the exception to the rule. It’s not that he looked much different. He was tanned, his muscles were taught and he was quite handsome. But there was something in his gait that just shouldn’t be there. His shoulders slumped forward, his chin drooped and as he walked he looked at the floor only occasionally raising his eyes to get his bearings. 

“John, John!” gushed his parents.
He raised his eyes and briefly smiled before walking off to the edge of the room and finding a seat.
“I guess it is a bit overwhelming,” said his Mother.
“I’ll be damned if he’ll do that,” muttered his father before irritatingly wandering off to find the headmaster.

“Hello, John. Is something wrong?” his mother had gone to find him.
“Hello Mother.” He spoke quietly and without emotion.

At the tender age of five, he was enrolled at The Academy a private school for the richest of parents that believed in the Victorian principles of child raising: that children should be seen but not heard. His progress could be watched by his parents through TV screens and realtime graphs showing his body weight, IQ, blood sugar count and everything in between. Children at The Academy were the healthiest in the world, their nutrition was constantly tweaked to ensure they had the best. Lessons were delivered through personal online tutors that, through the use of constant brain scans, monitored brain activity for signs of interest and adapted the lesson plan accordingly.

In his mind John was pursuing an active life of interacting with his friends, going to school and being forced to do homework and run for three miles around a freezing cold field in the name of building character. That was the theory and so far no one had contradicted it.

“How was school dear?”
“Lonely, very lonely.”
“Didn’t you play with friends?”
“Some of the time I played with friends but at the end of the day I just stood and stared out at row upon row of blinking lights for hour upon hour until my eyes closed and I returned to my friends. I couldn’t move a muscle during all of that time.”
“There there dear it can’t have been that bad.”
“You left me alone for thirteen years.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “Thirteen years of pain and misery. Thirteen years of sleepless nights. I must leave now. Good bye mother. I used to ask myself why, but now I don’t care. Have you any idea how lonely it is for a boy to be locked up without seeing his parents?”
“But you saw us love.”
“In my mind’s eye, but I never felt your love.”
“But they told me…”
“They told you what? That we wouldn’t know the difference? That we wouldn’t miss out on anything?” He almost spat at her with the venom.
“Yes, yes, that’s what they said.”
“They lied or they don’t know. Either way it doesn’t matter, now goodbye mother.”

And with that he stood up and walked away.

They didn’t see him again until 20 years later when he arrived at the reception of his father’s office building.

“Hello Father.” He still spoke with the soft dry intonation he’d had all those years ago.
“Hello John, how have you been?”
“You have heard I assume?”
It had been in the news John Sutherland had developed the cure for locked-in syndrome. There would be no more patients afflicted by this paralysis.
“We’re very proud of you. You see, that school was the best education that money could buy and now look what you’ve achieved.”
“It is true that without that school I wouldn’t have wanted to cure that problem. But I wanted to discover what caused it as well.”
“And you did?”
“I did.”
“Excellent, excellent. Well now if that’s all I’m extremely busy.”
“Shall we have lunch Father? I have invited Mother.”
“Yes yes alright.” His tone was hurried.

They took a taxi to a small apartment in the center of town and entered through an anonymous door, taking a goods lift to the seventh floor. They entered a room which had a dining table and three chairs in it and two sarcophagi’s. His mother was already there.

“What is this John?” asked his mother.
“We never had dinner together, so I thought we’d have one last family meal.”
“And those things?” his father nodded towards the caskets and just then both parents slapped the side of their necks with the palms of their hands. “You have bugs in here John?”
“Just those two. Now please eat.”

They ate and they talked and John explained what his life was like at school and what he’d been doing for the last 20 years. Presently his parents fell asleep and he moved them into the coffins where they would pretend they were living their normal lives until the evening when the darkness engulfed them and they would be awake for 12 hours staring out into the never ending darkness.

Monday, 4 March 2013

A Deists Dream

A Deists Dream
The Universe was not, as some would believe, a master stroke of engineering from some divine being. It was a fluke: a one in an infinitesimal number chance against it happening. It made the chances of finding you're holding the winning the lottery whilst being charged by a herd of polka-dotted elephants in your high street, seem pretty big. And then there's life, sentient living breathing rutting life.  You think that there's life on your cheese after it's been left in the fridge to have the appearance ofe a hairy scrotum attached to a sweaty rugby player. Nope that's just mold, absolutely no chance of anything interesting happening there.
          It basically takes, as astrophysicists and evolutionists will tell you, a lot more luck than that.
          Tuesday afternoon Dave is bored, he's sitting through another lecture on the history of someone or other who drew, painted or designed something really amazing. With an A4 pad of paper on his lap and a 2B pencil in his hand he starts to doodle. The lines flowing, like a melting glacier etching their way into the papery fibers coating the micro-filaments with gray powdery soot. By the end of the lecture, the assorted lines and shapes were just random patterns: swirls and oblique angles mostly, nothing to write home about. He tore the paper from the pad and scrunched it up, pushing it deep inside his jacket pocket before getting on with the rest of his day.
          By lunch the following day, he'd all but forgotten about the screwed up bit of paper, but, as he pulls his coat on and fumbles around in the pockets looking for his keys, his fingers run across the sharp edges of the paper ball. He pulls it out and has a look, before scrunching it back up and, being too lazy to find a bin, putting it back. The freezing air from the previous night dampened the fibers of his woolen great-coat, leaving his pocket slightly damp and smelling like a musty wet dog. He drags it on over a mangy jumper and torn pair of jeans before shuffling his feet inside a pair of desert boots and slamming the door behind him and heading to another lecture. It's raining; the harsh Arctic wind drives it hard into his face singing as it does so. He wipes the spray from his eyes, hoping that his eyelashes will stay clear enough for long enough to cross the road. They don't, and, as he crosses the road, he finds himself flying through the air before landing on the cold wet tarmac. Briefly, he hears noises around him and then silence.
          He never made it to his class, the next thing he remembers is waking in a strange bed, and, except for the beeping machines complete silence. He tries to move, everything aches. He sees his clothes in the corner of the room. A nurse comes in, he asks for his clothes. The black jeans are torn, from the grit and the nurses' scissors, the coat survives, it had been through worse than this in its life, and in the pocket was the soggy bit of paper. The wet road has soaked through the pocket and now it was disintegrating in his hand. He wasn’t sure why, but he decided to keep it, he unfurled it and lay it on his bedside table to dry.
          Unknown to him, the water, the cold and collision with a car created the perfect storm and a universe was created. The people of this universe created Gods, eventually settling, more or less, on a single one. They believed that it would look after them and answer their prayers.     
          As time passed, he kept hold of that piece of paper, never knowing why. It followed him as the young man became a young father who became a middle aged parent eventually becoming a grandfather an old man. Still unaware of the lives he kick-started all those years ago, he dies.