Tales from the Golden Age

Eighteen short stories adapted from the award winning monologues created during the lock-downs and performed at four theatres between 2020 and 2022

TRANSHUMAN

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

It's not that I had any desire to be immortal. I just didn't want to die.

 

I loved my life. I didn't want it to end. I loved the world. I didn't want to leave it. It's so full of wonder and drama and incident - and like any good drama, I wanted to see what happens next.

When I heard about the technology, frankly I was sceptical. I thought that the best they could do was create a digitised copy of your personality, existing out there in the cloud, but your own consciousness, your vital spark, your soul, if you like, wouldn't really inhabit that copy.

Subjectively speaking, surely you'd be alive one moment and then the next moment - extinction. Your copy would remain, but for you - only death awaits.

OK, so the people you leave behind would be able to interact online with what would seem to be you. Your personality and your specific areas of knowledge would be replicated. If they didn't know you'd died, they'd be none the wiser.

They'd think it was you. But it wouldn't be you. Not really.

I just didn't see the point. Maybe it would be a form of immortality but I wouldn't be there to experience it.

It would be no different to leaving something for people to remember you by or better still, some work of art or literature, or an object you've designed that people still use and interact with.

I thought this was the only kind of immortality we could ever aspire to.

In practice most of us don't leave anything of lasting merit behind, living on only in the memories of those we were close to, at least for as long as they are themselves still alive.

There's not a day goes by when I don't think of my parents but I rarely give thought to my grandparents. I've only the vaguest memory of them.

There used to be a framed photograph of my maternal grandfather sitting on the mantelpiece at home. With the passage of time the photograph faded almost to white, perfectly reflecting my fading memory of a man who died when I was only seven years-old.

I doubt if there's anyone else left in this world who knew him, so his immortality of influence has melted away. Like tears in the rain.

By passing on our genes we achieve a kind of immortality but the genes we pass on to our children don't reflect any of our lifetimes' experiences. Nor any of our unique personality and character.

Of course, children are influenced by their parents one way and another but seldom to their advantage.

More often than not, children rebel against their parents' values and attitudes and all that's really passed on are a few foibles and idiosyncrasies with a few extra character flaws thrown in for good measure.

You can see why I never wanted kids myself.

Anyway, I digress. So people who'd made the transition were claiming that it wasn't just a copy of their consciousness uploaded to the cloud. It was really them and the gradual process of increasing cybernetic augmentation ensured a continuity of self.

By way of demonstration there was the opportunity to communicate with some of the first people to have become 'Transhuman'.

Ray Kurzweil was the great pioneer and others soon followed. Mostly scientists and academics at first, including my former colleague at Cambridge, Professor Galbraith.

I'd been looking at the Transcorp website and sent a request for more information and within minutes I received a Holozoom invitation from Galbraith himself, which came as a surprise because I'd attended his funeral in New Haven about six months before.

I was wondering why he chose to use Holozoom. Let's face it, that's all about being able to see the person you're talking to. And what was there to see in his case?

Well, as it turned out there was this animated 3D image of his face, the movement of his lips synchronised perfectly with his speech. It was very realistic and frankly he looked healthier than he'd done for years.

He told me the simulation was based on holographic scans and voice recordings taken just before he died. But they'd gone to the trouble of making him look as he was in his prime.

In the years leading up to his death, he'd taken up a new post at Yale and we'd only kept in touch using Holozoom anyway, so in that respect there wasn't very much difference to the character of our conversation.

He seemed much the same; his self deprecating sense of humour was still very much in evidence. His eccentricity and old-fashioned courtesy.

I must admit, over the course of our conversation I became convinced it was really him and not just some digitised copy.

But with all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the worldwideweb at his fingertips there was none of his former charming absent mindedness.

He was really on the button and he seemed to be enjoying his non-corporeal existence. He claimed to be genuinely glad to be free from what he called, the shackles and limitations of his material body. He described it as 'liberating'. Well, he had a lot of health issues in his latter years.

He explained the process to me in much more detail than you get on the website and frankly I was persuaded and raring to go.

I had nothing to lose anyway. I'd been diagnosed with cancer and I was told I'd be lucky to survive beyond the end of last year.

So I talked it through with my husband, Ashley. He was surprisingly reluctant at first but after a conversation with Galbraith he came round to the idea and accepted that it was the only way we could be together. After a fashion.

I'm hoping that eventually when Ashley's time comes, he'll decide to follow me down the same route. I'd hate to lose him. Now that death is so unnecessary - and so wasteful.

We spend a lifetime building relationships, accumulating memories and knowledge - and hopefully wisdom.

To have it all extinguished in a moment, snuffed out like a candle flame, is such a profligate waste and absolutely not the fate I was prepared to accept.

Of course, there were some who tried to dissuade me. Particularly the more religiously inclined in my family. Even now, my younger brother, Clive, refuses to speak to me. He thinks I've cheated God by cheating death and that I should now be residing in Heaven - or in Hell - rather than in the digital realm. He actually said Heaven, but I told him I'd rather not take the chance. What if I ended up in the other place?

After all, there's a sense in which Heaven and Hell do actually exist. Subjectively at least. Many scientists believe that in the last moments of life we lapse into a dreamlike state. With our senses shutting down, our minds struggle to form a coherent narrative, out of fading sensory data - which is also precisely what happens when we dream.

With no data to process, our minds try to make sense of vague impressions and discordant memories. That's why our dreams are so often confused and agitated.

And as we all know, the passage of time in a dream bears little relation to real time in the world outside. Events in a dream might seem to last weeks but in reality the dream takes place in a few fractions of a second.

So when we die, we almost certainly lapse into what seems to us to be an eternal dream – or if you're unlucky, a nightmare without end.

They say eating blue cheese brings on nightmares. If you're not expecting to survive the night you should probably avoid Stilton for supper.

No, whatever Clive said, the eternal nightmare wasn't for me. But it wasn't just that. There was so much I still wanted to do. Research projects to pursue; academic papers to write; places to visit; people to meet. I simply wasn't ready to go.

So I signed up, paid my dues and underwent a series of operations, each time receiving a new implant, with a few weeks in-between each operation, allowing me to recuperate and get used to using the implant.

The first implant allowed me to make and receive phone calls just by speaking the name of the person I wanted to call. For the first time in years I didn't have to carry a telephone around with me. Which was very convenient.

The second implant allowed me to control the devices around me. The thermostats in the house, the oven, the self driving car and so on. It didn't matter where I was, I just had to say what I wanted out loud. "Car, come to thirty three Inverness Crescent," or, "dining room thermostat, set to twenty degrees centigrade." That sort of thing.

The third implant allowed me to think the instructions both for the phone and the other devices. There was no need to speak them out loud. Now that took some getting used to. You have to really focus your thoughts and you absolutely mustn't get distracted in the middle of an instruction. That can lead to all sorts of problems. Like the time I sent the car to Inverness in Scotland and plunged the dining room into sub zero temperatures, freezing the tropical fish in the process.

The fourth implant allowed me to surf the internet just by thinking where I wanted to be, which website I wanted to visit, which interactive holodrama I wanted to engage with or which virtual reality experience or game I wanted to immerse myself in. That was really quite something, once I got used to navigating my way around.

But that wasn't easy. After all I wasn't experiencing the information through my eyes and ears. My mind had to translate electronic signals into the impression of images and sounds, in much the same way the software in your tablet generates real images and real sounds.

Making sense of the confusing cacophony of data was similar to a baby trying to come to terms with its first sensory experiences.

Navigating the internet and communicating with websites was not unlike learning how to walk and talk for the very first time.

I got completely lost several times, on one occasion getting stuck for days in a website devoted to Spanish hacienda cookery.

It took a couple of months before I was able to navigate the cloud with any confidence or accuracy.

The next implant allowed me to upload my memories to the cloud. Both new memories and old ones, and I spent a good deal of time internally reliving the experiences of my life and uploading them so they'd be preserved for ever and accessible to me whenever I wanted them.

Apparently the aspects of our personality which are tied up with our memories are uploaded as part of the same process. I didn't have to think about that, it just happens automatically.

Our memories make up about ninety percent of our personalities, anyway. The remainder being our initial drive, determination and strength of character. We're born with those. They're what separates the men from the boys, so to speak.

As time went by, I'd spend more and more of each day apparently comatose in my hospital bed, whist my mind was surfing the internet, inhabiting virtual words and communicating with Ashley and with friends and with colleagues. I was even able to resume my work for the first time in months, finishing a couple of research projects I'd started before I fell ill.

The final implant allowed my consciousness to move seamlessly between my body and the cloud and, when necessary, reside entirely in the cloud. It was obviously important that I was there in spirit, when my body eventually expired.

And by 'in spirit' I mean that part of my mind which experiences the present moment.

At Transcorp they call it the 'essence'. Survival of the essence is very much the key to a successful transition from human to Transhuman.

This essence, in common with all other mental processes, is no more than electrical activity generated by networks of neurons. You can call it 'spirit' or 'soul' if you like, but until now it's always been confined to organic brains.

Before Transhumanism, any notions of the soul existing outside the body, or surviving beyond the grave, were no more than arrant nonsense, fuelled by wishful thinking and religious dogma - perpetuated by those determined to control our behaviour in this life with the promise of a better life in the hereafter.

But the soul or essence isn't localised. It dances around the various parts of the brain; one moment reliving memories of past events; the next moment experiencing the 'now'; at other moments, thinking about the future or whatever else you happen to be focussing on at the time.

And once you're conditioned to directly experience the digital realm - it can dance there as well.

The essence always has a point of focus that's its definition, in a way. But it also has a point of locus – a position in space. But that point of locus is no longer confined to the grey matter in our skulls.

This essence is fundamental to who we are as individuals. Even for people with advanced dementia, who've lost all their memory and personality, all their capacity for reason and judgement. They can barely function as human beings but that essence is still there, experiencing one moment after another, one thought after another - however confused. It isn't even unique to being human. Animals have it as well. Even the very simplest organisms.

Knowing that should give anyone pause for thought before they casually crush a spider or tuck into a plate of veal or foie gras.

The essence is also there in our dreams and only in our deepest dreamless sleep is it switched off entirely and then reactivated again when we awake.

But is the essence that reappears in the morning the very same essence that disappeared in the night? Well, that's a question for philosophers.

So I was spending most of my time in the cloud, only returning to my body when I knew I had a visitor at the hospital. More for their sake than mine.

As time went by, it was becoming increasingly painful to reside in my body and I didn’t want my mind dulled by morphine because that made it difficult to make the leap into the digital realm.

Eventually, I asked visitors to stop coming to my bedside and instead to communicate with me online, preferably by Holozoom. By that stage I’d already had the holographic scans and voice recordings and my facsimile was ready to go.

Then my doctor told me that I probably had no more than a few days to live.

Not that that bothered me, under the circumstances. To be honest, by that time I was looking forward to seeing the back of my decrepit old body. By then it was no more than a source of pain and discomfort. And humiliation.

I decided to spend no more time in my body and asked Ashley to make one final visit to the hospital.

We were still holding hands for what I thought would be the very last time, when I made the final transition into the digital realm, never to return to my old body again. Despite being eager to become fully Transhuman, that was a very poignant moment for both of us.

Ashley later told me that he was still holding my hand when I died in the night. Peacefully, as they say.

Actually, I was immersed in a rather racy virtual reality scenario at the time.

My first task as a Transhuman was to use Holozoom to make contact with everyone I knew. I wanted to explain that I still existed, albeit in a digital form, before they came to hear of my death.

Most of them knew what I'd been planning, although there were several distant acquaintances and colleagues who had no idea of my intentions, and I felt they ought to be told what had happened to me.

Those conversations were interesting to say the least.

"Hello, yes thanks. I'm feeling just fine. No, I've not made a miracle recovery. Not as such. What you're looking at is just a digital facsimile but it is really me talking to you. You see, I died last night and I now exist only in the cloud. No, don't send flowers. Really don't. After all, I'm not actually dead."

What's it like? That was the question on everyone's lips.

What's it like to exist in the cloud?

The nearest approximation I can give you is to compare the experience to a lucid dream - the type in which you know you're dreaming and have control of events.

In the digital realm you're not limited by the normal laws of physics. Just as in a lucid dream, you can move around freely, flipping from one place to another, literally at the speed of light.

Of course, it takes a while to get to that stage but I'd had plenty of practice before making the final transition.

But not all of your senses are engaged, although there are an increasing number of virtual reality experiences specifically engineered for Transhumans, and they include approximate simulations of touch or smell or even taste.

But most websites aren't set up to generate anything other than visual or occasionally audible stimuli, so there's usually an element of sensory deprivation.

Many years ago I went for a swim in the Dead Sea. Well, swim is the wrong word. 'Float' would be a better way of putting it. It was very much like that. Yes, floating in a warm saline sea. Except you can't feel things like temperature, of course.

It was extraordinary, being able to flip all over the virtual world - and beyond. I even had access to transmissions from deep space probes. Those wonderful images of exploding nebula, black holes and exo-planets.

And I was able to directly experience the European Space Agency's Rover vehicle trundling over the surface of Pluto. That was quite extraordinary. I could eavesdrop on billions of internet conversations, visit millions of websites, watch any holodrama uploaded to the net and immerse myself in all sorts of virtual reality games and scenarios.

Living in the cloud certainly made me question what it means to be human. What it is that constitutes our very identity. Some people seem to get hung up on whether they're defined by their race or their nationality, their social class, their sexuality or their gender. But there was I, disembodied, non corporeal. Those things no longer had any meaning or relevance, but I was still me.

I had at my fingertips the sum total of human knowledge - well, except that I didn't have finger tips. In fact, it wasn't long before I started missing real physical interaction. The various simulations were no substitute for the real thing. I would have given anything just to take Ashley in my arms. Or to enjoy a good meal, or feel the wind in my hair or the sun on my face.

Well, it just so happens that there's a way for Transhumans to experience all these - and more besides.

If you can find someone with the appropriate implant, you can download your consciousness and you get to share their experiences. Their physical experiences.

Now all this costs. Fortunately that wasn't a problem. The real difficulty was in finding someone who was prepared to allow me to share their experiences. In a way, it's the ultimate invasion of privacy. And it turns out it's illegal in this country.

To my mind, the laws governing this sort of thing are far too inflexible. After all, both parties benefit. The hosts can do very well out of it. And certainly the people who handle them can.

It's quite common in Russia. Mostly female hosts. Well, hostesses. They tend to come from poor families so, of course, they can't possibly afford the implant themselves. It costs over twenty thousand pounds for the operation, so someone needs to put up the money in the first place. But it's a very worthwhile investment.

I made contact with Ivan through the dark web. It turned out he has several girls all set up with implants and ready to share their experiences. He had holovideos of all of them and I chose Tatania, described by Ivan as a sweet nineteen year-old blonde from Vladivostok.

I won't go into all the details but after six months denied all physical contact, it was quite something to share Tatania's experiences. Even just feeling the Siberian wind on my face or enjoying a good meal. I've developed quite a taste for beetroot soup and pickled gherkins.

I arranged, through Ivan, to share Tatania's experiences for an hour every day and this went on for a few weeks but it was all very passive and frankly the novelty started to wear off.

It was quite frustrating. The things she would do with her time. I'd never before realised the wisdom of that phrase, 'youth is wasted on the young'.

It turns out there are different degrees of experience. The ultimate state, known as full immersion, allows you to assume complete control of a host's motor functions and you can actually speak through their mouths.

This costs more, of course, but it was a small price to pay. So again, initially for an hour a day, I effectively became Tatania.

Now, this was a much more satisfactory arrangement. It's amazing to be able to experience the world through this young body, with it's acute senses and agile limbs, especially after months in digital limbo, preceded by a decade or more of being subject to the limitations of old age. I was eighty-seven when I died.

Ashley flew over from London and we got to spend some quality time together. It was all a bit strange for him at first but he's getting used to it. He won't admit it, but I'm sure Tatania's youthful body has its compensations.

In fact, so we can spend more time together, Ashely's rented a penthouse flat with wonderful views, looking out over the sea of Japan.

I wanted Tatania to fly to London but Ivan's not keen. She's in here as well, of course, but I'm not really conscious of her presence, and whilst I'm in control she can only passively experience the things I do with her body.

The trouble was, it was quite a wrench to return to the digital realm, and when I was there I spent all my time yearning to be back inside Tatania.

So I came to an arrangement with Ivan to spend much more time in Tatania. Initially a few hours each day, and now we've agreed that I spend all of her waking hours here.

I'm not exactly sure what Tatania thinks of all this but apparently she's being very well compensated.

I've had a few complaints from Ivan about over-eating. And over-indulging in one or two other things, as well. Tatania's certainly put on a bit of weight since I've been in control. And now it turns out she's pregnant.

It's probably Ashley's. It could be Ivan's.

Either way it's going to be an interesting experience.

BOY STROKE GIRL

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

I had an interesting encounter this afternoon in the cafe on Totters Lane. The place was nearly full but I managed to get a table to myself in the back room. I had my earphones in, and I was reading an old Sci-Fi paperback, a collection of Philip K Dick's short stories. I noticed someone come into the room looking for a table. About my age, smallish and slim. Vintage suede jacket, black jeans and Doc Martins.

Very striking actually, but the thing is - I really can't tell if it's a boy or a girl. The loose clothing gave nothing away and the way they moved wasn't either obviously masculine or obviously feminine.

There isn't a free table but they stop and have a look through the newspapers on the shelf by the door. Meanwhile I'm trying to work out their gender. Of course he or she catches me staring. I looked away and buried my head in my book. I'm sure I was blushing.

Next thing, they come over and ask if the chair next to me's free. So I move my bag and go back to my book. Before sitting down they ask if I'm keeping the seat for a date or something. I said I'm not and put my earphones back in.

They sit down beside me and say something about it being best to check because these coffee chains thrive on the dating scene. Some joke about it being appropriate because people choose a partner like they choose a cup of coffee. You know, a tall, sweet, strong, black.

I say or a 'small flat white', and we catch each others eyes for the first time.

Anyway, I go back to my book. But they keep on talking. Something about dating apps treating people like commodities. How everyone thinks they know exactly what they want and how It leaves no room for the magic of chance. No happenstance. No serendipity.

So there I am in conversation with this strangely attractive person and I still can't tell whether they're a boy or a girl. I don't have a clue. Not from the body language or the gestures or even the voice. So I introduce myself thinking once I know their name it'll clear up the matter but it turns out their name's 'Blue' so that wasn't much help.

We continue talking about the dating game and Blue mentions how most people have this image of an ideal partner. Not a real person, but an idea informed by cultural stereotypes. And to meet someone you have to conform to this idea. You have to force yourself into a nice little box designed to appeal to a potential partner. You won't get anywhere unless you tick all the right boxes. All the right interests. I suggested that travel, skiing, and going down the gym twice a day would be very popular.

Then Blue picks up my paperback saying I wouldn't want to mention that because it'd really ruin my chances.' It turns out Blue likes sci fi as well and particularly Philip K Dick so we get talking about his writing and why some people think it's un-cool to like Sci Fi.

Then Blue mentions they're showing the director's cut of Blade Runner at the BFI. Neither of us have ever seen it on the big screen. Anyway to cut a long story short we've arranged to to go to the BFI on Saturday. It's not actually a date. I mean you can't really call it a date if you don't know their gender. Can you?

 

* * * * *

I met up with Sara and Ron in the Union bar, the day after my encounter with Blue.

I wasn't going to mention it but Sara could tell there was something on my mind. So I told them about Blue and how I don't know whether they're a boy or a girl.

Ron asked if it was very dark when we met. Sara used the word androgynous and Ron asked if Blue's seen a Doctor.

I knew I shouldn't have said anything to Ron. He was bound to take the piss.

He said he's as open minded as the next man, woman or trans-gender individual but you’ve got to know where you stand otherwise I could be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

Sara says she thinks it's great to have the whole gender thing set aside but Ron isn't convinced. Far from it. I try to explain that whatever their gender, Blue isn’t very masculine.

I know I'm not attracted to masculinity. Ron pointed out I like masculine women.

He means the 'tom boy' thing. The way I see it, I'm obviously going to get on better with a ‘tom boy’ because they're more likely to share my interests. Lets face it, there aren't many feminine women into Sci Fi, Sherlock Holmes and vintage motor bikes. If only!

So Ron has a point but maybe it’s the feminine side of masculine women I like. If that makes sense. Ron said however feminine Blue is, what if he stroke she has a penis? How would I handle that? I said, 'awkwardly I suppose'.

He thinks I haven't thought it through. Which is true enough. I don't know what I'll do if Blue turns out to be a bloke. Truth is, I'm a bit confused.

Sara mentions how I've more of an eye for a pretty girl than most men she knows and that as soon as a hot girl walks in the room my eyes light up, particularly if she has a nice bum. Although to be honest that's only when she's walking out of the room.

 

* * * * *

 

When I arrive at the cinema, Blue's already waiting. It was a bit awkward at first but I notice Blue's wearing this badge with a Celtic design. It turns out that's something else we have in common. I like all that stuff as well. Celtic, Viking, Anglo Saxon. It’s beautiful and somehow mysterious. Incredibly ancient. Its origins lost in the mists of time.

So we talk about that for a while and I point out that apart from liking sci-fi and Celtic design, I know nothing about Blue. I don't know where they're from or what they do for a living or anything. Blue said they don’t like to be defined by what they do or where they're from. Or anything else for that matter.

I tell Blue I don't mind saying what I do. It’s not what I want to do anyway so it doesn’t define me. I'm a waiter but I'm trying to get into journalism.

Blue says that's my 'stroke' meaning 'waiter stroke journalist.' It looks like Blue's has quite a few strokes. Conceptual photography, performance and video art and to make ends meet they work in a book shop.

I like video art as well so we talked about that for a while. I mention Bill Viola’s fire and water stuff but Blue finds his work a bit cold. A bit too metaphysical. Pipilotte Rist is Blue's favourite. I don't know her but apparently her videos are more personal, more from the heart.

I mentioned how I've noticed with female artists, their work is often more subjective and so more interesting in a way. More…engaging. More about their own experiences as women. With male artists it’s all theoretical or political, hardly ever intimate or revealing.

They all seem to have their heads in the clouds. I asked if Blue's art's more personal or more metaphysical? Apparently it's some of each and sometimes both at the same time.

I said that figures because Blue presents themselves in a sort of ambiguous way.

Blue asked if that's a problem for me and I implied it wasn't. I was about to ask the obvious question when the cinema doors opened and we dashed in to get a good seat.

 

* * * * *

 

We had our second date yesterday. Well, considering what happened I suppose I have to call it a date. Blue chose this bohemian wine bar in Fitzrovia. I asked if Blue lived round there but apparently not, somewhere in Limehouse in a Victorian warehouse converted to life/work spaces for artists. So I was beginning to get some details.

I asked where Blue's originally from and I get, 'It’s not where you’re from that’s important. It’s where you’re going.' So I ask 'So where are you going?' Blue said 'Beats me'. That's a typical Blue comment.

At least I can think of Blue as an East End ..er..person but Blue said 'Where they live doesn't define them.' so I asked 'How about where would you want to live, if you could chose anywhere ?' Blue said it would have to be somewhere in London and it still wouldn't define them but Belgrave Square would be alright.

I remember the Oscar Wilde line and ask 'The north side or the south side?' 'I'm a bit of a Wildean.' 'Any other ians?' Blue wanted to know. So I say 'Dickensian, Whovian, Holmesian...'

That's two other things we have in common. We both like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. They’re both superheroes in a way but unlike American superheroes they don't actually have superpowers. Apart from their intellects. And they don't tend to wear their underpants on the outside of their trousers.

Blue said 'so I have plenty of ians but how about ists or ites'. I mention humanist, feminist, Dawkinite, Corbynite... Blue suggests 'Marmite' but I can't stand the stuff.

So I asked about Blue's ites, ians, ists and isms. Blue said 'Isms create schisms'.

I like that. According to Blue, once you nail your colours to any mast you create an opposition. You divide the world into people like us and the others. The enemy.

Blue thinks everyone should have their own unique ideas and shouldn't compromise their opinions by forcing them into some predefined ideology. Blue doesn’t want to be defined by labels because they create a kind of straight jacket for ourselves.

I asked if this principle applied to other aspects of Blue's life. Particularly the most fundamental label of all. The first label anyone applies to another person, meaning of course male or female.

Blue said I'm implying they're the only choices.

OK I say, so boy or girl or maybe something in-between or a bit of both. It would be nice to know one way or the other.

Blue said we seem to be getting on well and find each other attractive and maybe things could go further, so does it really make a difference if they're a boy or a girl?

I said I don't know. Maybe it doesn't. Although to be honest I'm not sure I meant it.

Blue said so it's just curiosity on my part which really isn’t very important. But it is important I like Blue for themselves whatever their gender, because Blue doesn’t want to label themselves, or be labelled by others. Not according to nationality, race, social class, occupation, sexuality or even gender.

I said I hope I'm going to find out sooner or later.

It turns out Blue doesn't want to rush things because they want me to get to know them in a non-gender specific way first. And also because they're not that sort of… person.

I think Blue almost slipped there which is kind of cute. I couldn't stop myself reaching out and stroking Blue's cheek and chin. It was very smooth. I suppose it could just be a close shave.

Blue said 'try this' and leans over and kisses me passionately on the lips. I wasn't expecting that. It was nice, Very nice. Blue asked 'Am I any the wiser?'

I said no, not really. Let's face it, human beings don't have their genitals in their mouths.

Blue reminded me they do from time to time. I fell right into that one.

 

* * * * *

 

We've been meeting three or four times a week. Usually in a cafe or a bar. At first there's always a kiss at the beginning. To break the ice, Blue says. And a longer one before we part. But it's not all about kissing and holding hands. There's always a lot to talk about.

Time just flies by in Blue's company. It seems like we've just arrived and then three hours later we're the last people in the joint and the staff just want to go home.

We've been to a few art galleries and street markets and for a walk along the canal which ended up at Limehouse. I saw Blue's warehouse – from the outside at least.

I got to hear about Blue's art projects. For the latest one Blue got some friends to dress up in biblical clothes and staged a very realistic photo of the crucifixion with a daft looking guy in front taking a selfie.

It's the latest in a series of carefully staged historical scenes all with the same selfie guy in the foreground. Blue calls the project 'The Time Travellers selfies'.

We went to the V&A to see Viking church doors. They're are absolutely fantastic. About a thousand years old and to my mind the most beautiful thing in London, well, other than Blue.

Yesterday afternoon we had a picnic in Regents park. I noticed Blue's quieter than usual. I wondered if it was something I've said but It turns out Blue's a bit frightened about.. well ...us.

I said I feel the same because I've never really been in this situation before. Blue thinks I'm talking about the gender thing but I'm not actually.

I admitted at first I was hoping Blue would turn out to be a girl, but now we've got to know each other...well it doesn't seem to matter any more. I really mean that. It's not the gender thing that frightens me. I said I don't want to scare Blue off but actually it's well, the love thing.

Blue seemed genuinely surprised. Was I saying I'm falling in love? I said it's getting that way. It turns out it's getting that way for Blue too. It's terrifying. Now I know why they call it a 'roller coaster ride'. Blue asks if I've been in love before.

I said I haven't, not really, but I have been on a roller coaster. I've been in lust several times. Sometimes with girls I don't even like. But sometimes with girls I do like. Really like. But I knew there was something missing. I suppose lust plus friendship doesn't equal love. But I didn't know what I was missing. Blue asked if I do now.

I didn't want to sound ridiculous but I mention how there's something...pure, about my feelings for Blue. In the past it's always been about sex. No more than that – it's been about outer beauty. But with Blue it's about inner beauty as well. It was difficult to put into words.

Blue said I wasn't doing so bad and that maybe I'd come up with a definition of love.

What poets have been trying to do for centuries. The recognition of a person's inner beauty. Blue says that's how they feel about me.

I ask if it's just because we both like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. Blue said if we we're being honest, that's a very big part of it.

 

* * * * *

 

I wasn't looking forwards to Blue meeting Ron but Blue doesn't shy away from confrontation, far from it - and doesn't want to be excluded from any part of my life.

Sara and Ron were already in the Prince Alfred when I arrived. Of course they both wanted to know if I've discovered Blue's gender. It's all they can talk about. Ron said I must be hoping that Blue turns out to be a girl.

I said I'm hoping that the relationship continues, whatever Blue turns out to be.

He said he's used to thinking of me as being one thing and now he doesn't know if I'm one thing or the other.

Sara asked Ron if it turns out Blue’s a guy, and that makes me gay - is that a problem for him. He says that's not the point and that wouldn’t make me gay. That would make me bi.

Sara mentions she met a girl at Bob’s party who apparently said she was bi. We're both keen to hear more but it turned out she was bi-polar which was a bit disappointing.

Anyway Ron said even if I was bi I'd probably still want to know Blue's gender. Then it doesn't come as a big surprise.

That's the trouble with Ron. He likes everything to be neat and labelled and unambiguous. The point is I'm just attracted to Blue. Whatever Blue is.

Sara suggests maybe I'm not bisexual, I'm attracted to Blue's androgyny so I'm androgynosexual. Ron said she can't just go round inventing words.

I said I don't know why I need to have any kind of label. Sara pointed out Blue's starting to rub off on me and how it's really romantic if a couple get together despite difficult odds.

You know, differences of class or race or being from different sides in a war or a family feud like Romeo and Juliet. She mentioned an extreme example recently where a couple got together despite him being a Remainer and her being a Brexiteer! There's no way that's going to work!

Ron says at least they're not hiding their differences like Blue.

He's always so fucking judgemental. Applying his narrow prejudices to others. I was starting to lose my rag with Ron. Things were getting a bit heated when Blue turned up so I calmed down and introduced everyone.

We kissed of course and I could see that made Ron very uncomfortable. Then he starts closely scrutinising Blue from every angle but he doesn't say anything. I tell him not to be so rude and he mentions how Blue's gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to disguise 'his or her sex' and that 'it's an odd thing to do'.

He then says something about no tits to speak of. I told him that he was going too far and he says it was me that was going too far with what he called 'a fucking freak'.

Something about how ninety nine percent of people would think of Blue as a deviant.

I was about to swing him one when Blue stepped between us saying they're not interested in ninety nine percent of people, only in me, and Ron's supposed to be my friend. Blue wanted to know to why it's such a big problem for him and how he should be able to think for himself without referring to ninety nine percent of people and hasn't he got a brain of his own inside his thick skull.

I was really proud to see how Blue stood up to him. Ron's nearly twice Blue's size but Blue made him look really small. So Ron goes off in a huff and we don't see him again for the rest of the evening.

Blue was concerned about coming on too strong but Ron needed putting in his place.

He was well out of order. Apparently it's not the first time Blue's had that kind of trouble.

Sara says it's probably from men who aren’t secure in their own sexuality. Ron's not normally such an idiot. I don't know why it's such a big deal for him.

Sara said it's because we're in the same gang so he thinks my choices reflect on him.

This was a bit embarrassing because I hadn't mentioned the 'Dark Riders' to Blue. It's just a few mates into old motorbikes. It's not really a gang. It's a 'biker' thing.

According to Blue, people compromise their true nature when they try to fit in to a group or a gang. Why we can't just be ourselves rather than taking on an identity that’s handed to us on a plate with a nice label attached. It's one thing to like old motorbikes but do I have to call myself a ‘biker' and take on all the baggage that goes with it?

Blue said I already have the leathers and I'd be growing a huge beard next, wearing a bandanna, getting a beer gut, not washing for weeks and treating women like shit. That’s not going to happen. Well maybe the beard.

Then Sara asked if Blue's look is an expression of their sexuality.

Blue said it's not just a look. It's a reflection of who they are inside and why should they conform to a masculine or feminine stereotype? After all, they're nothing more than social constructs designed to perpetuate outdated hierarchies.

I suggested sexuality isn't really about who you are in yourself. It's about who you want as a partner and it would be much easier for Blue to attract partners if they could be labelled or pigeon-holed.

Sara said we're obviously beginning to influence each other and in a way, we're a gang. A gang of two. Blue accepted this, in so much as any couple is a gang of two.

Sara asked if we think of yourselves as a couple.

We both said yes so Sara pointed out that's one label Blue's happy to use.

 

* * * * *

I was getting a lot of pressure from Blue to meet my parents. I'd deliberately not told them I was seeing anyone but Mum could tell something was going on. So I admitted I've met someone special and now Mum's eager to meet Blue as well.

The trouble is, Dad’s not exactly mister liberal minded. He's always sitting in judgement. He treats me like a contrary child and he never respects my decisions. Whenever I do something a bit different, I always get this 'Oh Peter', in a tone of voice which speaks volumes.

When we arrived, Mum and Dad were in the front room which we only use for special occasions which is a bit daft in a small house if you ask me.

I made the introductions and Mum gave Blue an awkward hug and Dad obviously doesn't know whether to shake hands or give Blue a peck on the cheek. Mum made a pot of tea and asked if Blue takes sugar. Blue doesn't so there's the usual 'sweet enough.'

I can't stop myself saying 'I think so' and Dad says 'do you now' and starts asking about Blue's Christian name for obvious reasons. It was like the fucking Spanish Inquisition.

He said it's not often I brings a partner home and Mum says how she always thinks it's a funny term, partner. Mum old Blue how Mr Atkinson in her cookery class asked her if she had a partner and she said she's not in business. Dad says the word covers a multitude of sins and he mentions how Mr Atkinson had a partner - but not in the business sense. He was called Gerald and it turned out he knew Mum's cousin Frank.

I asked if he was the one who left his wife and went off with the under-chef at The Elms. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Eventually, Mum mentions how they do a very nice three course lunch at The Elms.

Then they start talking about local hotels that’ll put on a good spread for non residents.

Dad asked if Blue has any brothers or sisters. Blue mentions an older sister and a younger brother and Dad says 'One of each then' and Mum kicks him under the table.

He asks if they're called Red and Green so I tell him to stop taking the piss. I'd had enough of this so I suggest Blue and I go upstairs to my room.

It's the first the first time we’d been alone together. I mean, not in a public place.

We sat on my bed and kissed for while but when I started to unbutton Blue’s Jacket it was obviously the wrong move.

I said I wasn’t thinking about going all the way. Part the way would have been very nice.

Blue said 'not yet'.

I tried not to show my disappointment and asked how Blue puts up with all the grief. Like from my Dad and from Ron. Blue wants to ignore the issue of gender but it ends up being the focus of their every interaction. We couldn’t have a normal conversation downstairs. It was dominated by just one thing. Dad didn’t even try to get to know Blue as a person 'irrespective of their gender'. And it’s the only thing my friends want to talk about.

Blue said that wasn’t important - but everywhere we go people stare. It’s as if Blue's got some strange disfigurement. Look at what happened in the Bar with Ron. That could have turned nasty.

Blue said it sometimes does.

I said we've had umpteen dates and I still don't know Blue's gender. So wasn't it about time?

But Blue wasn't ready for that. I should continue to respect their wishes.

I said it didn't sound as if Blue respected mine.

Blue said my wishes were only motivated by curiosity and impatience and they didn't deserve any respect.

So I asked when was Blue going to tell me? I said I can’t hang around forever not knowing. Then Blue gets up and leaves. Slams the front door and runs down the street.

I watched from the window. Even from behind I can tell Blue's in tears.

 

* * * * *

 

I had a bone to pick with Dad. I told him he wasn't exactly friendly towards Blue.

He said he thought I was bringing my girlfriend home.

Mum reminded him I actually said 'someone special'. Dad said my deliberate ambiguity led to a situation in which he's being accused of being unfriendly.

I told them I wasn't being ambiguous. I didn't say whether Blue's a girl or a boy because I didn’t know. I said I can’t tell any more than they can. Then I get the usual 'Oh Peter - You do get yourself into some situations.'

Mum asked if it 'ever came up in conversation'.

I said of course it came up but Blue wants us to get to know each other without any labels. Without the implications of gender.

Dad said 'How very modern.'

I told him in future he should treat my partners with more respect and more courtesy or maybe I'll never bring anyone home again! That front door's had a lot of slamming for one day.

I went straight round to Blue's place to apologise. This time I was invited in.

I told Blue I didn't mean any of that stuff. I was just being a dick. I was being impatient, for us to get closer.

Blue said what I meant was to fuck.

I said that as well. But also in other ways.

Blue said we're already close in other ways and that it was really just about sex. Or was it about gender?

I admitted my impatience was clouding my judgement but I really don't care about Blue's gender or Blue's sex for that matter. I said the one thing I was sure about is that I wanted us to be together.

So Blue calms down a bit and shows me a portfolio of photographs. Photos of her friend Carol who's a model. She's stunning. And not bashful!

Apparently Blue took them last week. There was one of Carol and another woman together. Artistic but very erotic if you see what I mean. I said if Blue ever needed someone to hold their exposure meter...'

Blue asked if it excites me. The sight of two beautiful women together - in that way.

I said no more than most hot blooded men.

Blue asks if I'm hot blooded.

I say I think so, and Blue asks me to prove it. So we start kissing and this time there's no resistance from Blue.

So, to cut a long story short we both get our kit off and well... finally I know.

Blue asks if I'm disappointed. I said definitely not.

Blue asked me to promise I wouldn't tell anyone else. Just because I know, no-one else needs to. That way Blue gets to remain unlabelled unpigeon-holed, uncategorised and so on. Which is fine by me.

What we're are doing is pretty special. I might be the very first person to have fallen in love with someone without knowing their gender. I know people sometimes might be attracted to someone when they think they're one gender and it turns out they're another. But that's different. Even if their relationship survived, which it probably wouldn’t, their feelings were based on an assumption, even if it turned out to be wrong. And that’s an assumption that comes with a lot of baggage.

When I fell in love with Blue I didn't have any assumptions. I couldn't have. Blue made sure of that. So after millions of years of people falling in love, we've done it differently. Completely differently. In this respect at least we're unique.

Whatever happens now, you can't take that away from us.

Trivial Dispute

by Ian Dixon Potter

 

'Well it's all a bit of a mess. I'd gone and dug a hole for myself and I wasn't sure how to dig myself out.

What's crucial to understanding this whole situation is my own position in the local community.

I'm Purley born and bred. I've lived in this neck of the woods all my life. About fifteen years ago me and the Missus, and our Kevin, moved to Blackleafe, a village about three miles south of Purley.

I don't have much of an education. I left school at sixteen but as everyone will tell you I've done very well for myself. I own the third largest chain of tanning boutiques in East Surrey.

My son Kevin runs the business now so I'm officially retired and I spend most my time tinkering with classic cars. I've always been handy with a spanner. I used to work for Loxhams, the Austin Morris dealership in Croydon - where the big carpet warehouse is now.

I used my redundancy to set up the first tanning boutique with the Missus out front to deal with the customers. She's always had a very nice tan herself.

It's not just my own cars I work on. I make a few bob repairing old cars for a few local car nuts. It's only for pocket money. Not that I need the income. I'm a millionaire three times over and and me and the Missus live in a seven bedroom detached house in the mock Tudor style, with a bit of Spanish-colonial thrown in for good measure.

I'm on the Goodstone Road committee; I chair the local Crime Watch meetings and I've been a member of the local Conservative party since the days of Saint Margaret! We call our house 'The Thatchers' on account of her, although only the garage block's actually thatched. And in the garage I've a collection of classic cars. All British of course - mostly Triumphs and MGs and the Missus has a brand new Range Rover Evoke. But that stands outside. Pride of place is my 1973 Triumph Stag in Java Green, which is a bit in your face - but it's quite a rare colour.

The main point of all this is, I'm very well known locally. I've got my fingers in all sorts of pies and I've a reputation to uphold. That's what this is all about. Reputation.

Which brings me to the matter in hand. It all goes back about seven years, to when Ewan and his wife moved into the old farmhouse on Wattendon Lane. He's a retired Professor. Very well spoken, in a sort of posh Scottish way. Very old school, if you see what I mean. I suppose you could call him an eccentric. You go into their house... it's like stepping back in time - he dresses like a refugee from the 1950's. All tweeds and elbow patches. Put it this way, in Ewan's case it's not just one foot in the past. Although, funnily enough, his style might be antiquated but some of his attitudes are very modern. Too modern for my tastes.

His wife, er - what's her name - she's Malaysian or something. Apparently she's a graphic designer. I never know what to say to her. I've never had much to do with orientals. We don't get many foreigners round here. It's all very English - which suits me well enough. Ewan says, “She's the only Malay in the village!”

She doesn't have much to say for herself. I asked him if she's shy and he said, “You should see her when I'm not around.”

I think she's as uncomfortable with me as I am with her. I suppose Ewan and his wife are used to a more cosmopolitan environment. Don't think they really fit in round here.

Now Ewan's always out on his drive tinkering with some classic car or other. Like me, he has quite a collection but in his case it's all foreign stuff. Two Citroens, a rare Lancia, a pre-war Alfa Romeo and a Renault Four for everyday - which isn't worth much - but it's his favourite because he's had it since he was a student. Oh, and a Fiat - that's the most modern one but it's still over fifty years old.

Often as not anyone walking up Wattendon Lane who's halfway interested in old cars, sees him there tinkering and stops and has a chat with him. That way Ewan gets to know Malcolm, who lives round the corner and has an immaculate old Rover, although he doesn't use it much. Spends most his his time polishing it.

But Ewan's more interested in driving his cars. Turns out he's never owned a modern car. I'm surprised his wife puts up with it. He uses one of them everyday. That's one thing we have in common. About the only thing.

Anyway, Malcolm's from Glasgow so he gets on well with Ewan who's from Edinburgh originally, although I think he'd lived in London all his working life.

I look after Malcolm's old Rover for him and, knowing that Ewan's looking for a mechanic, Malcolm puts him onto me. You see, Ewan has all these cars and although he does the routine maintenance himself, he needs help for anything more complicated. He told me he'd tried a couple of local garages but found them next to useless.

So - I help him out with a few jobs on his Fiat. It was getting hot and bothered in heavy traffic and it turned out the fan was on back to front. So it was blowing, rather sucking, if you see what I mean. I'm surprised one of these garages didn't spot that. Looks like useless was just the right word. The car was badly out of tune as well. I don't know who'd been working on it before me. Anyway it was cash in hand and a nice little earner for me.

Now the trouble is with having so many cars there's always something needs doing. A few weeks after I sorted the Fiat he sends me a text. His Renault had broken down on the bypass. Well, I had enough on my plate so I just ignored it. I suppose I coul've replied to tell him I didn't have the time but, frankly, I couldn't be bothered.

It's not that I didn't like Ewan back then. He seemed alright at the time. Always very courteous, in an old fashioned sort of way. I always felt I had to mind my Ps and Qs when he was around. We had a few chin-wags over a mug of tea. He might not have been very practically minded but he certainly knew his stuff about cars. The history of different models and who designed them and what-have-you. And he had a dry sense of humour... Sometimes you had to work hard to realise he was actually joking but I never felt like cracking any of my jokes in front of him.

Well, mine usually involved, well, er... certain, er, minorities - or were a bit racy. Well, more than a bit. The fact is, I was never completely at ease in his company. He wasn't really my type of bloke. Bit of an intellectual and to make matters worse, a Remoaner! Although that didn't come up until until the referendum - and I'd already known him about three years by then.

Ah, I knew from the outset he was a Labour Party member - which was surprising in a way. As I said, I've always been a Tory. Although I did think of voting UKIP back in 2015. Either way, our political differences didn't really seem to matter. Until the issue of Brexit came along.

 

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, because a few months after ignoring his last text I had a bit of time on my hands and Malcolm mentioned Ewan had been having trouble with his Alfa-Romeo, so I said I'd help him out again. I've never worked on an Alfa before and fancied a challenge but as it turned out, whatever I tried, I just couldn't get it running smoothly. And it was a devil to start.

So a few months pass by with the occasional message or call from Ewan. I was busy with other things so I don't pick up the phone or reply to any of his texts or voice-mails, but that's just my way. I just didn't fancy replying. I'd only have to say I was busy, so what's the point? I've done the same thing with others and it didn't do any harm.

To be honest, I'd rather work on British cars, especially Stags. The owners are more my cup of tea. It's funny how certain types of people seem to gravitate towards certain types of car. I get on with Stag owners, in fact, Triumph owners in general. I've a Toledo as well and a Dolomite Sprint, I rebuilt for Kevin. So I let everyone know I wasn't going to bother working on anyone else's cars in future. Apart from Triumph Stags. I had enough on my plate with them anyway because there's always something needing doing with a Stag.

But from time to time I'd have a drink with Ewan and Malcolm down The Dog and Duck. And we got on quite well, if we kept away from certain topics. But what with the referendum result, we couldn't really avoid the subject and Ewan soon showed his true colours.

He once said that xenophobes – as he put it – had shot themselves in the foot on account of how, when the Europeans go home, there'll be no one to do certain jobs and so we'll end up with South Asians and the like coming here to do them. Not that he thought that was necessarily a bad thing, but he reckoned xenophobes hate them even more than they hate Europeans. I knew very well, when he used the word xenophobe, he was talking about yours truly. Pompous ass!

Malcolm's a keen Brexiteer as well, which means he's alright in my book. But I don't think he takes it as seriously as I do.

I'd been careful not to say too much about foreigners in front of Ewan, what with him having a foreign wife, but I know he was there when our Kevin mentioned how I hate immigrants. I can't remember how it came up. I think Darren was there at the time. Darren's my oldest mate. He's lived round here all his life as well. We're birds of a feather. We always have a good laugh when it's just the two of us. I don't think Ewan would be very happy if he overheard our banter – especially when it comes to blue jokes and stuff about immigrants. Put it this way, we're not exactly politically correct. Not by a long chalk.

One time, all four of us we were down The Dog and Duck and Darren was going on about how much he hated the EU and Ewan asked him why.

Darren mentioned sovereignty but when Ewan asked which European laws Darren was against, he couldn't think of any. The conversation moved on to holidays and Darren mentioned he'd never been abroad and didn't want to, on account of there being too many foreigners. Ewan said he wondered if sovereignty was the real reason Darren voted Leave.

So whichever way you look at it we're miles apart on Brexit and frankly I'd rather spend time with people who didn't look down on me on account of my views. That's what it amounts to. I can tell it's a sport for Ewan. He likes picking holes in my arguments and making all Brexiteers out to be thick or racist or both, and it isn't easy to argue with him because he's had the benefit of a university education and, as I said, I left school when I was sixteen.

As the months go by, Ewan sends me the occasional text suggesting we meet up for drink down The Dog and Duck. But I just ignore them, as per usual.

In the meantime Ewan and Malcolm had set up this classic car gathering. A monthly meet-up in the car park at The Plough. Third Saturday of every month, kicking off at nine o' clock in the morning. They called it the Warlinghamring – for some complicated reason known only to them.

I think they put a load of leaflets under the windscreen wipers of cars at several local car meets and Ewan wrote to classic car magazines, telling them what they were planning. And, of course, they had to get permission from the manager at The Plough.

Anyway the Warlinghamring starts off small, of course, but after a couple of months it soon picks up, although there's a bit of a hiccup early on because neither Ewan nor Malcolm could get to the third or fourth gathering and The Plough hadn't opened as early as usual. Now, some of the regulars were more interested in filling their bellies with a full English than standing around in the car park talking about cars so they decide to go off to The Jolly Farmer, leaving the car park empty, so when more cars arrived there was nobody there. It turns out several people came a long distance and had to turn around and go home. They probably never came back.

Now, when Ewan gets wind of this, he tears a strip off the ringleader, Colin, and there was bad blood between them for a while. That's the thing about Ewan; he won't button his lip and he's got this self-righteous streak. He's obviously not afraid of confrontation and if he sees what he thinks is bad behaviour, he's always quick to point it out. Too quick, in my opinion. I remember thinking at the time that I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't had a few pints of beer thrown at him in his time. Or worse.

Anyway, despite this setback, the Warlinghamring goes from strength to strength and if we get good weather the car park's bulging at the seams. I reckon there were over a hundred and fifty cars on one occasion.

Now, I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I'm in all these members' groups and I don't mean just classic car groups. We've a couple of kittens at home and I'm always posting cute pictures of them. So it seemed like a good idea to start a Facebook members' group for the Warlinghamring. I didn't ask Ewan or Malcolm in case they said no. I didn't think either of them used Facebook much anyway. I knew Ewan had an account but I'd never seen him make many posts. Or, at least, not at the time. Instead he used emails to run the gathering. He put everyone who arrived on his email list and there were a couple of hundred last time I heard. Then, a few days before each gathering, he always sends out a reminder.

So I set up this Facebook group with the same name as the gathering – the Warlinghamring – and I let all my mates know. After a few months there were about forty members but not much going on. When Ewan got wind of it he didn't say anything, although I could tell he wasn't best pleased. I suppose he thought he and Malcolm should've been consulted. He certainly implied as much later.

Then Lockdown puts a stop to the gatherings and Ewan has the idea that as we all won't be getting together for a while we should do something with the Facebook group.

“I want to create a sense of community,” he said. He asks to be made an administrator of the Facebook group alongside me and her indoors. So I agreed and then he reaches out to the hundreds of people on the email list. In a few hours the membership more than doubles and Ewan starts posting something every day.

First off, he asks members to post photos of their cars in interesting locations and we get quite a lot of those. Then he starts posting what you might call short opinion pieces, looking at classic cars and what they say about their owners. All supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. I think he fancies himself as a motoring journalist or something.

He was obviously being deliberately provocative to try and get responses from other members. It worked, as well. You could see how the number of responses increased as his posts became more controversial. Eventually there was quite a debate going on but I wouldn't be surprised if some of his messages started to upset a few people. I don't think everyone appreciated his sense of humour. I think it's mainly because he refused to use emojis. Punctuation for the tone-deaf, he called them. But in my opinion, it helps to use a smiley face if you poke fun at something. Or, at least, an LOL. He won't use that either for some reason. The problem is, I don't think people knew when he was joking. For example, he mentions how, as well as the usual T shirts and baseball caps, the Austin Allegro owners' club emblazons its logo on straitjackets. And he says, how people who drive Morris Marinas need help. Something about care in the community. That sort of thing.

I think he's just a snob when it comes to classic cars. He said in one of his posts that excellence is nothing to do with what you pay for a car, but the fact is, he has all these fancy foreign cars so it's as if he's looking down on some of the common-or-garden British stuff, which apart from anything else, is downright unpatriotic, if you ask me.

Anyway, one day he posts this message about his experiences with local mechanics. How, when he lived in central London, he had his cars maintained by a variety of foreigners. Italians and Poles and the like, and how reliable and well-mannered they were. But when he comes to live in rural South London he finds nothing but incompetence and bad manners and the only two decent mechanics he's found have this big drawback, in that they usually ignore phone calls and messages. He says he's never experienced anything like that before and asked if it was a South London thing. It might have been meant to be tongue-in-cheek but of course he was talking about yours truly - and another bloke he'd had a similar experience with. He didn't name names but one of the members knew I'd done work on Ewan's cars and I'm sure he put two and two together. Especially as I'd done work for him and not always returned his messages neither. But he didn't make a big fuss about it.

I can't tell you how furious I was. Rubbishing me on a public forum! Bloody cheek of the man! The fuckhead! When Ewan realised that others were beginning to twig he quickly deleted his original message but he didn't really apologise. Well, not properly. He then sends a private message to me saying that, discourtesy and bad manners should be called out wherever we find them. He's nothing but a pompous self-righteous arsehole!

First thing I do is remove his administrator privileges but I had to find a way of defending myself. Now, if I were to respond directly, more members would guess it was me he was talking about, so I created this fake member called Fleur Bjord. It's easy enough. You just have to set up a fake Facebook profile. I thought it would help being a woman because if a man gets into an argument with a woman he can soon sound sexist or ungentlemanly. And I knew that'd be the last thing Ewan would want. The foreign sounding name was a good idea because anyone who knows me wouldn't associate me with a foreigner.

So using Fake Fleur, I posted some messages attacking Ewan and pointing out why someone might not want to return messages for reasons other than bad manners. Of course, he doesn't realise it's me and he argues his case and then I use Fake Fleur to throw a few personal insults in his direction but after a while he starts ignoring her. Then one or two other members start wondering who she is because, frankly, we don't get any women at the gatherings apart from the occasional wife or girlfriend. Oh, and apart from Karen, with her red Sunbeam Alpine. I think she's the only one out of a couple of hundred men. Women just aren't interested in classic cars. I think they're just more sensible when it comes to cars - when it come to most things, now that I think about it. I get nothing but grumbles if my Missus has to travel in any of my classics. She misses her heated seats and cup holders. And she can't park anything without parking-sensors.

Anyway, Fleur had done her job and I took down her profile in case anyone notices anything fishy and Ewan goes back to publishing his opinion pieces, trying to provoke others to respond.

In one of these, he mentions a few cars with, what he calls, a feminine quality, and fuck me, the Triumph Stag is amongst them. What a lot of rot. I'm sure he wrote that just to get at me. There's nothing remotely feminine about a Stag. I mean, Christ, you couldn't come up with a more masculine name if you tried. Stag, for god's sake! I mean, it's not the Triumph Hen, is it? Or the Triumph Fluffy Bunny Rabbit! No, the Stag is a man's car by any standards.

There are quite a few Stag owners in the group, all mates of mine – well I look after their Stags, don't I? Anyway, everyone of us was very unhappy with his comments.

A few of the Stag owners start attacking him and my mate Keith, questions his sexuality, although that backfired because Keith implied there's something wrong with being gay, which might well be true, but you can't say that sort of thing nowadays – and more importantly, there's at least one young lad in the group who might be upset about that, on account of his own leanings.

Of course, Ewan gets onto his high-horse about homophobia and tears a strip off Keith and said I should have a word with him, on account of him being my mate and what with me being the administrator.

So with one thing and another I'm getting fed up with Ewan, so I come up with another fake profile to attack everything he posts from now on. No-one will guess it's me, so this way I don't get my hands dirty.

I used the name Rory Cowan, who's a not very well known Irish actor in my favourite TV show, Mrs Brown's Boys. Fleur was all about defending me, but Fake Rory is my attack dog. So every time Ewan posts one of his opinion pieces, Fake Rory goes on the attack.

Now at first, Ewan calmly responds with a few facts and figures backing up his arguments but when Fake Rory describes all foreign cars as being crap, Ewan asks if this opinion extends to foreign people. I thought he'd take the bait because he's sensitive to that kind of thing. He once said most people round here are somewhere on the spectrum between mild xenophobes and outright racists. It was probably all the Leave posters in people's windows that set him thinking that. There certainly weren't any Remain posters to be seen. Not one! We know what side our bread's buttered on round here.

So the gloves are off and Rory piles on the insults but Ewan just ignores him.

So I post a few porky pies about Ewan to rubbish him and then I immediately prevent him from responding for twenty-four hours, so it gives other members the impression he's nothing to say in his defence. There's a lot to be said for being a Facebook group administrator. You have total control of what's said and what isn't.

Then, the next day, the shit hits the fan. I get this email from Ewan. It turns out he's worked out that Fleur and Rory aren't real and it's just me using them to defend myself and attack him. Christ. I did not expect that. Reading between the lines I think he must have noticed that the profiles were both empty and I'm guessing he googled their names and found nothing except the Irish actor and I think I might have told him I like Mrs Brown's Boys. I slipped up there. Truth is, there were quite a few inconstancies here and there and he'd put two and two together and made four. You certainly need to have a good memory when you make things up.

Anyway, I'd been rumbled and Ewan threatens to expose the truth unless I close the Facebook group down. I think he wanted to avoid these goings-on tainting his beloved gathering, what with it having the same name as the Facebook group. Well, he should have thought about that.

Trouble is, if I agreed to shut it down, I'd definitely lose face so I decide to bluff it out and deny everything. I think it would be difficult for him to prove, anyway. I had to put the lid on this if I was going to salvage my reputation. He said he couldn't leave it alone, or he'd be a party to the deception.

So Ewan goes ahead and tells everyone about the fake profiles, saying it's the other members who're being deceived. Then I get my mates to rally round and back me up and throw a few insults in Ewan's direction at the same time.

Anyway I challenge him to give us his proof but before he has a chance, I stop him from responding for 24 hours so it seems as if he hasn't got any proof. Before the 24 hours are up I delete his membership and his post about the fake profiles so he can go and fuck himself.

Then Ewan sets up a new Facebook group and changes the name of the gathering itself so as not to be connected with my Facebook group and that's an end to it as far a he's concerned.

Now there are more than a few in my Facebook group who are beginning to suspect Ewan might be right about the fake profiles. So to preserve my reputation I had to try to convince them otherwise, so I start a few pretend exchanges with Fake Rory. I had him ask questions which I answered. Technical questions about cars. I know its like talking to myself but I get to show off some of my knowledge and I think it created the right impression. The trouble is I'd already made out that Rory and Fleur were local. Well lets face it everyone in the Facebook group is local and goes to the gathering or plans to in the near future. Now I knew that when the gathering's get going again and neither turn up some people were going to start asking questions. So which ever way you look at it that's me in the shit.

The only way I could save face is if someone calling themselves Rory or Fleur turned up at the next gathering. Now apart from the Mrs I hadn't told anyone the truth about the fake profiles and I'd have to take someone into my confidence if they were going to play the part of Rory or Fleur. It also had to be someone who wasn't known to anyone at the gathering which was a problem in itself.

Now that's where Sandra comes in. I don't think there's any need to go into my past association with Sandra but lets just say we'd known each other a few years on a sort of professional basis. I knew she'd do anything for a few quid and she had the advantage of not being too local. Well she lives a good five miles away in South Croydon. So I explained the situation to her and she agreed to come along and introduce herself as Fleur Bjord.

Now that the lock down was being eased we were due to have the first gathering in months. So I put Sandra up at the Travel Lodge in Blackleafe. We met up there the night before and we talked about her back story to get everything straight.

Then on the day of the gathering I arrive in the Stag at half nine and there's already about fifty or sixty cars including Ewan in his Renault. Then about ten minutes later Sandra turns up in a taxi and I wait until Ewan's talking with a large group of people and I introduce 'Fleur' to him and the others. Ewan's obviously surprised but tries not to show it. He welcomes her to the group all very polite and asks about her interest in old cars. She manges to remember some of the stuff I'd told her although she gets a lot of it back to front. Then he says he admits he thought she wasn't a real person and asks if she wouldn't mind showing him some ID. She gets a bit flustered and swears at him like a trouper and walks off. Then to make matters worse it turns out that Robert who has five Austin Devons knows who she is, probably in the same way as I do and he's obviously not coy about it. Well he's been on his own a few years now, after his wife left him, probably on account of the Austins. He's surprised to see her there and calls her 'Sandra' in front of everyone and she tries to talk her way out of it but to be honest she wasn't very convincing and she keeps looking at me to help her out. It was all very awkward and made a right mess of my little scheme.

Now not much was said to my face but I couldn't help noticing a lot of them in the Facebook group deleted their membership including Darren and Malcolm. And about a week later later a few of my mates have one of the regular Friday night meet ups down the Dog and Duck and for the very first time I wasn't invited. I know for a fact that Darren was there along with Malcolm and Keith. So I'm naturally very pissed off by all this and decide to get my own back on Ewan by trashing one of his cars. He hasn't enough garaging for all of them so the Renault sits outside in all weathers. So I walk up there at two in the morning in dark clothing and a Stanley knife in my pocket and set to slashing all four of his tyres and putting some deep scratches down both sides of the car. The trouble was apparently the woman who lives opposite is an insomniac and Ewan's drive is quite well lit. It looks like she's seen what I'm up to and she must have got on the phone to Ewan. So, I'm just about to leave when Ewan comes out in his dressing gown and confronts me and we get into a scuffle. I honesty didn't mean to use the knife. It just happened to be in my hand at the time. So I left him bleeding on his drive and scarpered home as quick as I could. I'm guessing his neighbour saw everything that happened and she must have recognised me. I'd only been home half an hour when the police arrive and you know the rest.

So I've laid my cards on the table. I don't think I left anything out. In your professional opinion what do you reckon's going to happen to me? I imagine you've come across cases like this before? Haven't you? As a solicitor I mean? What I'm trying to get at- is it self defence or manslaughter? I mean it's not actually murder is it? Is it?

THE BEAST

by Ian Dixon Potter

 

I've heard the rumours about Grossman.

Patricia wondered if it was more than just a coincidence that every one of the female architects promoted to the level of associate or partner were of the same physical 'type'.

You could say I come into the same category. For that matter, so does Patricia.

She's far and away my closest friend in the office. Although in my experience, work friendships are usually very superficial.

Let's face it, however well we get on, we're inevitably in competition for the next available promotion.

Mind you, Patricia's never been promoted, despite being with the practice for getting on five years, even though she has far more ability than most of the associates. And despite, allegedly, being Grossman's 'type'.

She says she's deliberately avoided putting herself in certain situations; situations which Grossman could potentially misconstrue. Basically, she makes sure she's never alone with him.

He has this penthouse flat above the office and on several occasions he's invited Patricia up there after work, on the pretext of discussing her projects.

On each occasion she made a point of taking one of the interns along, that way there wasn't the slightest possibility of any funny business. Apart from anything else she's married. Mind you, so is Grossman.

Patricia's lovely. She's warm hearted, vivacious and very dedicated.

She's the life and soul of a party. Her husband Graham is a very lucky man, and he knows it.

She's just found out she's pregnant. She and Graham have been trying for quite a while and they've had to resort to IVF. She told me the good news only last week. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so happy. The only downside is that Grossman isn't very generous when it comes to maternity leave. Well, come to think of it, he's not very generous when it comes to anything.

What else can I tell you about him? Well, he's obviously a very successful architect. He's built up the practice from nothing and now it's one of the biggest in London.

He's not the world's greatest designer but he's very good at networking, and his main role in the practice is attracting and entertaining the clients – usually at various lap-dancing joints, from what I hear.

When you see him with the clients he's all very obsequious, but with us employees he's nothing but a foul-mouthed bully.

If anyone makes the slightest mistake he'll shout at them in front of everyone, making very liberal use of the 'c' word. He makes you feel really small and doesn't like it at all if you answer back.

He's been known to throw things as well. And he's a skinflint. We have a massive turnover of interns working all hours for no wages whatsoever and they hardly ever get taken on permanently, and the rest of us get paid an absolute pittance.

Grossman takes the attitude that architecture is a vocation. We're not supposed to be in it for the money and we should be grateful to have any kind of job in the current climate. We're contracted to work from nine to five-thirty, but if anyone dares leave before seven they get a dirty look from Grossman. If they do that often enough he brands them 'a nine to five architect', and they soon get their marching orders.

And there's no such thing as overtime in this job. In fact, we're expected to work until after seven virtually every evening and we even have to come in at the weekend if the projects demand it - and they often do, on account of the way he allocates man-hours. Well, person-hours.

In fact, there are twice as many women in the office as men. Of course, he does all the interviewing, which probably explains why we're all the same physical type. And I'm sure he thinks he can get away with paying us a fraction of what he would have to pay men. And unfortunately he probably can. He thinks we're all being supported by husbands or boyfriends with better paid jobs, but that's certainly not my situation.

But Grossman does very well out of it, thank you very much. Apart from the penthouse, he's got a mansion in Hampstead, a cottage in the Cotswolds, a brand new Aston Martin and three kids at top public schools.

I don't care so much about the material trappings but one way or another I'd certainly like to be running my own practice when I get to his age. I've wanted to be an architect as long as I can remember. It runs in the family. My dad and my younger brother Jason are architects as well. Dad has a small practice in Blackburn and he always wanted Jason to work there and eventually take over.

Despite being the oldest, there was never any talk of me going into the practice. All the emphasis was on Jason's education and career.

He gets to go to this posh private school and I had to settle for the local comprehensive.

My dad's what you might call a 'social conservative' - which is a nice way of saying that he has a problem with anyone who's in any way different to himself.

He was an old dad, over fifty when I was born, so he was set in his ways well before the era of the 'new man'. Mind you, that didn't last long. Sexism just skipped a generation, then laddish culture came back with a vengeance. I blame Jeremy Clarkson.

Dad never expected me to do anything other than get married and provide him with grandchildren. Even now he takes no interest in my professional life. Last time we spoke I was complaining about the glass ceiling at work and all he could say was how it must be awfully difficult to keep clean. He obviously thinks it's my job to get up there with a duster.

The best thing you can say about Jason is that he's a medium-sized fish in a very small pond. One way or another, I'm aiming to be a very big fish in a very big pond.

But it's not easy for a woman to get on in architecture. It's a highly competitive profession, so despite what I think about Grossman, if being nice to him is all it takes to get a step up the ladder, then why not?

 

* * * * *

 

If you end up back at a man's place some people seem to see it as a tacit acceptance that something's going to happen. Of course, that's a strong possibility under the circumstances, but we're perfectly entitled to change our minds. I've been in that situation a few times. More often than not it's when something suddenly turns me off. It might be his aftershave or an unfortunate taste in home furnishings. Well, whatever the reason, on the spur of the moment I make the decision that I'm absolutely not going any further. Now, I know I've got to be careful how I handle the situation because I don't want to hurt his feelings or create a bad atmosphere, so I tell him quite clearly how he mustn't assume that by coming back to his place I've agreed to have sex.

I tell him I'm not that kind of girl, even though sometimes I am. No, I tell him I agreed to his invitation so we can get to know each other better and if things work out then of course we can move on to the physical side - on a future occasion.

Of course, there probably won't be a future occasion, unless he ditches his aftershave or pays a visit to Ikea.

The 'me too' movement wants to portray all women as victims but short of being physically overpowered I honestly can't see how any sensible woman with a modicum of backbone can't handle these situations.

 

* * * * *

 

Now Ingrid, one of the associates, is going to be leaving next month so this could be an ideal opportunity for me.

So I sent Grossman an email asking for his opinion on the three design options I'd been working on for a new boutique hotel in Knightsbridge. It was a reasonable request because he's done a few projects in the area and he knows very well what's likely to get past the planners.

It didn't come as any surprise when he invited me up to the penthouse. He said he'd had a few thoughts about the hotel but he was in a series of meetings so there was no opportunity to discuss the project until nine-thirty, if I didn't mind stopping late.

So that evening I gathered my sketches and took the lift to the penthouse. Of course, the lights were subdued, and there was Grossman in a a T-shirt and shorts. Like a lot of men these days, if he's not in a suit he generally dresses like a toddler. He's fifty if he's a day.

He's a very unattractive man by any standards, and judging by the old photos about the place he was no better looking when he was younger.

It's difficult to imagine any woman ever being physically attracted to him.

I suppose that's why he has to resort to seducing his employees. He knows he might just stand half a chance with them - for obvious reasons.

You hear that some men get rejected so often they eventually come to despise women. So if they find themselves in a position of power they end up treating us as objects for their own gratification. Mind you, when you think about it, some of those actors who've ended up in trouble with the 'me too' movement are actually very good looking. You wonder if in their case it's all about a sense of entitlement. They expect women to fall at their feet.

Perhaps it's nothing to do with how a man looks. Maybe most men, given half a chance, would take advantage of a position of power in much the same way. Look at what's been going on in the Church of England or in the Catholic Church, for that matter.

Anyway Grossman asks me to lay out my sketches on this low, glass-topped table and invites me to sit down on his white leather sofa. He says he's just opened a bottle of Chardonnay and would I like a glass? So I accept, and he sits down besides me and I explain my ideas for the hotel.

He's supposed to be looking at my sketches, but as I lean over the table he seems to be paying more attention to my cleavage. Well, I wasn't buttoned right up.

Still, he had some quite useful observations to make and he praised my ideas, and then he starts asking me about myself. About where I studied architecture and where I saw my career going - that sort of thing. Of course, he mentions about Ingrid leaving.

By this time I'm on my second glass of Chardonnay and I ask to use the bathroom. While I'm in there, I take the opportunity to undo a couple more shirt buttons and when I go back to sit down I notice he's moved to the middle of the sofa so I have to squeeze in beside him.

He starts going on about his ambitions for the practice and how someone like me could be a big part of its future. As he's talking, he casually touches my shoulder and I don't say anything, so his next move is to rest his hand on my knee. I was wearing quite tight fitting jeans. Unless we're meeting clients we tend to be a very casual office.

I don't object and then he says he hopes I don't mind him mentioning it, but he couldn't help but notice how I have an exceptional bottom.

Can you believe it? An exceptional bottom!

Frankly, I was a bit shocked but I say I don't mind at all, it's nice to receive compliments. He says he's sometimes wary of complimenting women in the office in case his comments are misconstrued. I say I'm sure no one would jump to the wrong conclusions about that kind of comment - although they might well jump to the right ones.

It's one thing to compliment a woman's blouse but her bottom is an entirely different matter.

He says men have to be really careful these days on account of the 'me too' movement. I tell him how I've no time for all that. And how I know what side 'my bread's buttered'.

He mentions how he can't even pat a female colleague on the back for fear of being accused of touching her inappropriately. I say that's ridiculous, and I wouldn't mind at all if he touched me inappropriately. He didn't need a second invitation.

* * * * *

 

To my mind this whole 'me too' thing stems from the simple fact that despite decades of feminism it's still usually the man who's expected to make the first move, to be the seducer. So with the onus on men, it's hardly surprising they get it wrong from time to time.

In an ideal world, it would be perfectly acceptable for women to initiate things but we're seen to be 'easy' or 'desperate' if we do. And we can even put a man off if we come on too strong.

So that's the root of the problem. Of course, there's the matter of men's superior physical strength. That's the other significant factor. There's not much we can do about that, unless every woman on the planet becomes a black belt in judo or something.

So for men there's obviously a fine line between being pro-active and overstepping the mark. Yes, we expect them to make the first move, but if we're not responsive they need to back off.

In other words, no means no. Even when it might mean maybe, or not just yet.

 

* * * * *

 

When Patricia heard I'm going to be made an associate she was obviously taken aback, but she tried not to show it. She rather pointedly asked me about what happened when I went up to the penthouse.

I said that Grossman was the perfect gentleman and how those rumours about him preying on female employees were nothing more than gossip and tittle-tattle.

Well, I didn't want Patricia or anyone else knowing my promotion was based on anything other than merit and experience. Well, it was based on experience - just not one I'd want to repeat in a hurry.

Patricia obviously believed me because the next time he asked her up to the penthouse she didn't feel the need to take an intern along with her.

I feel a bit guilty about what happened next.

Put it this way, Patricia didn't come into work the next day – or any day since, for that matter.

Just as soon as I arrived in the office, Grossman came over. He was obviously worried about something and wanted to know if I'd said anything to Patricia about what had happened between us.

I said I hadn't and he looked a bit surprised. He said he thought women talked about that kind of thing. Anyway, the police arrived around lunchtime and took Grossman away in handcuffs.

I was interviewed along with everyone else in the office. They asked me about my own experience with Grossman but under the circumstances I could only repeat what I'd told Patricia.

I'm sure I wasn't the only one in that situation. It seems very likely there were others who'd benefited from a 'liaison' with Grossman, but even now I don't know for certain.

You see, although there were always plenty of rumours and innuendo, nothing was ever admitted.

But one of the interns came forward and told the police how Grossman had made some clumsy advances, but when she rebuffed him he gave up immediately and even apologised, after a fashion. Under the circumstances, it says something that she managed to keep her job.

The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised if Grossman was emboldened by what happened between us. I'm guessing he thought Patricia was also 'fair game', especially when she turned up without an intern in tow. He knew we were friends and he'd obviously assumed that I'd told her all about what had happened between us.

I've tried to contact Patricia on numerous occasions, but she's not answering my messages, which isn't like her at all.

 

* * * * *

 

Any intelligent, sensitive man should be able to tell exactly how far a woman's prepared to go. It's not just what we say, it's our body language and all our other non-verbal signals.

It's all about communication. There really shouldn't be any room for misunderstanding. Now, I know there are some men who're incapable of reading a woman's signals or unwilling to accept them. They're either arrogant or ignorant or, more commonly, both.

Unless there's something in it for me, I generally avoid that sort altogether. You can spot them a mile off, full of machismo and bravado. They tend to be the aggressive, competitive types. Quite often, the ones who've done well for themselves, career-wise, I mean. Let's face it, the society we live in rewards that type of man. The gentler, more reflective types don't get a look in.

So if a woman's looking for a successful man to provide for her, she tends to gravitate towards the assertive, thrusting arrogant type and ends up paying the price, one way or another.

The trouble is, once they get a couple of drinks inside them even a 'new man' can turn into a sex-fiend. It's as if deep down, the beast is there in all men, waiting to be unleashed.

I think it's something to do with the way they're brought up. Have you noticed how the very worst insult you can throw at a boy is to call him a 'sissy' or a 'pussy', which basically means to 'act like a girl'. Is that the first step on the road to misogyny?

We encourage boys to be assertive and aggressive and determined to overcome all obstacles. But what if the thing they're determined to overcome is the resistance of women?

My dad often reminds us of how he badgered my mum for months before she eventually gave in and agreed to go out with him. I suppose he thinks this is a charming illustration of persistence, even devotion, but it could equally be seen as an example of a man refusing to take no for an answer.

 

* * * * *

 

Well, it eventually went to trial. The office was closed for the duration so I managed to attend most of it. I think Grossman thought I was there to support him. I'm not sure what Patricia thought. She certainly wouldn't catch my eye in the courtroom.

Anyway it was very much her word against his, which is apparently what rape cases usually boil down to. That must be why it's so difficult to get a conviction.

Of course, Grossman had the most expensive lawyers he could find and Patricia was on legal aid. Her barrister was neither use nor ornament. 'Legal hindrance' would be a more appropriate term.

Grossman's barrister said Patricia was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Two of the associates, Laura and Michelle, testified to Grossman's good character. At the time I thought, well, they would wouldn't they? I'm glad they didn't ask me.

Surprisingly the other defence witness was the intern who'd escaped Grossman's clutches.

The barrister made a lot of the fact that she came away completely unscathed and with an apology to boot. And he went on about how she still worked in the practice and hadn't suffered any repercussions. He claimed that Patricia's situation was very much the same.

There was no physical evidence of rape. Apparently there usually isn't in these cases.

Grossman's barrister made a lot of the fact that she didn't go straight to the police that night. He said it was significant that she waited until halfway through the following morning. I don't see what that's got to do with anything.

He pointed out how Patricia had willingly entered Grossman's private flat, very late in the evening, and he went on at great length about her 'scanty clothes'. They even produced them in court. The jury handed them round. It must have been very embarrassing for Patricia. Well, it was the hottest August on record and the old skinflint refused to provide us with air-conditioning. Everyone in the office was in scanty clothes at the time.

I felt like saying something about that but it was probably too late by then. When the defence barrister cross-examined Patricia he implied she had loose morals and had been angling for a promotion. He eventually reduced her to tears.

So to cut a long story short, Grossman was completely exonerated and he was back in the office the next day. That evening, everyone in the office went down to the Queen's Head to celebrate. We all had a lot to drink and I took the opportunity to ask Laura if she'd ever been propositioned by Grossman. She told me it was very much the same as with the intern. She'd rebuffed his advances and it didn't go any further. Apparently the same thing had happened with Michele and with Ingrid. So it looks like I was the only one to actually go through with it. Which, I have to say, is bit of a surprise.

It turns out Grossman's suing both Patricia and the police for defamation of character.

The last I heard, Patricia's had a nervous breakdown; she's had a miscarriage and on two occasions at least she's tried to take her own life.

Well, one thing this whole business has taught me is that we all react very differently to these situations. I'm expecting to be made a partner before long, and Patricia's in a secure hospital ward under twenty-four hour watch. It's very sad, but what can you do?

Confession

By Ian Dixon Potter

This is getting embarrassing. The highest profile crime in the county for decades and we've got nothing to go on. The trouble is, it's a motiveless crime. No sign of sexual assault. No sign of robbery. Just two fifteen year old lads, out for walk in the countryside who end up being brutally murdered.

There's not a shred of useful evidence. No DNA match to anyone on the database. No witnesses. No CCTV. No weapon. No nothing.

I say there's no weapon but from the wounds we think it was something like a machete.

A machete! I mean Christ this is rural England not Bongo Bongo Land!

To make matters worse I grew up a couple of miles from Fullerton where it happened.

People know me round there. I'm getting a hell of a lot of stick from the locals. And there was me thinking the murders would be my passport to promotion. But no, still plain old D. S. Dunderdale.

And now, with the anniversary of the murders coming up I'm getting a shit load of pressure from on high. I've been told in no uncertain terms that I don't come up with something, I'll be back in uniform and directing traffic before you can say Tommy Robinson.

I say there were no witnesses but three locals saw this black bloke hanging around Fullerton war memorial in the days leading up to the murders. The problem was, their descriptions didn't exactly tally but we still managed to come up with a photofit. Inspector Aldis said it just looked like a generic black man. Well he used a different word to black man if you get my drift.

But that was the only thing the descriptions had in common. The thing is, we don't get many blacks around here so when you see one, that's the first thing you notice. And you don't usually notice anything else apart from the fact that they generally look very suspicious.

But one thing they all agreed on was that he was very black. To get an idea as to his precise hue, by way of comparison, Mrs Willan referred to the ace of spades - which wasn't a lot of help.

Anyway at my instigation, the photofit artist has just had another session with all three witnesses to see if we could come up with something better and I've circulated the new image to all the newspapers. So we'll see what happens.

 

* * * * *

 

There was a massive response to the photofit. Just like there was first time round. Over two thousand people thought they recognised the suspect. That took some sifting of course and it turned out that several of them identified David Lammy, the Shadow secretary of State for justice but fortunately for him he was giving a speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool at the time of the murders.

Anyway, one elderly lady in Woodhaven thought it looked like her next door neighbour, Youssef Massoud, and lo and behold it turns out he has some previous with a machete! So at last we're getting somewhere.

It turns out that Massoud got eighteen months for attacking his girlfriend's husband about five years ago. Apparently, there were extenuating circumstances which is why his sentence was on the short side but a black man who matches the photofit and who caries around a machete – well, it's more than suggestive.

So we haul him in and of course he denies having anything to do with the murders but there was something about his manner that told me he was lying though his teeth.

It's difficult to put into words, but in my job you just get a hunch about people. Once you get them in an interview room, you can tell if they're guilty in the first thirty seconds. Sometimes even before they open their mouths.

He was an insolent bastard as well. Chewed gum throughout the first interview which was also very suggestive because chewing gum had been found near the scene of the crime.

When we asked him if he'd ever been to Fullerton, he claimed he hadn't but after a little probing it turns out a couple of years ago he had a holiday at the caravan park at Thornlea Point and you have to drive through Fullerton to get there. So he knew the area and what's more important, he definitely lied, which tells you a lot.

Now, I also interviewed the woman who fingered him, his next door neighbour Mrs Hall. I asked her if she could remember anything odd about his behaviour around the time of the murders.

I implied there'd be a reward in it for her if she helped us out. Mind you this was all unofficial – we're not supposed to do that so it had to come out of petty cash.

I also reminded her how the papers tend to be very generous for any titbits from anyone involved in the case. She eventually said, now I came to mention it, she seemed to remember seeing blood on his clothes on at least one occasion about a year ago.

So all things considered I'm certain we've got our man. He's a good match for the photofit. You've got his previous with the machete. You've got the chewing gum, you've got the fact that he knew the area, you've got the lie about never having been to the village, you've got the blood on his clothes and to top it all he didn't have an alibi for the day of the murders.

He said he couldn't remember what he'd been doing on a Tuesday evening fourteen months ago. He claimed he was probably out for a jog. A likely story for which of course he has no absolutely no corroboration. He said he usually goes jogging alone. How very convenient. He said he usually has a shower after a jog – and he tends to do that alone as well.

He's a cocky bastard. No we've got our man alright. It's just a matter of proving it.

 

* * * * *

 

First off, we had a ID parade. All black men of course. Well fair's fair. And we wheeled in the three local witnesses. Now Mrs Willan's eyesight isn't what it was, so she wasn't much help.

Mr Proctor said they all looked guilty as sin and wanted to have a second go but even then he couldn't say for sure. He said the murderer could just as easily have been anyone of them and perhaps they were all in on it together. I think he's missing the point.

Mrs Bainbrdge took her time about it but eventually she identified Massoud which pleased me no end. She said she was certain on account of him being a good deal blacker than the others.

Now with Massoud having previous, his DNA was already on the system and unfortunately there wasn't a match otherwise we'd have caught him on day one. But just in case, we tested everything again, both his DNA and the DNA on the gum and other stuff from the scene of the crime.

While we were waiting for the result I wanted to keep him locked up.

Trouble was, Aldis didn't think we had enough evidence to hold him much longer so I organised a thorough search of his house and guess what we found in his bathroom cupboard?

Eight grams of cocaine. That was a turn up for the books.

Of course Massoud claims he's never seen it before and accuses me of planting it. Well he would wouldn't he.

So now we can hold him on drugs charges. Let's face it, you can get up to seven years for possession. So yesterday morning he goes into Strangemarsh on remand, while we put together our case against him.

While he's there, the DNA comes back and there's still no match which was very disappointing so frankly the evidence is looking bit flimsy to say the least. So we might be back to square one.

He's guilty. There's no question about it. We've got our man. But the evidence just won't stand up in court. It's all circumstantial. We need more. Aldis said go out and find it. I've had an idea.

 

* * * * *

 

Now what with his previous, Massoud knows the ropes. He knows full well how, in the nick, if you've committed a crime against children you're the lowest of the low. They brand you a nonce and you're fair game for all kinds of violence from the other inmates and even the screws. Or at the very least, the screws tend to turn a blind eye.

And more particularly you're also fair game for other inmates saying how you'd confessed to the crime and these cell confessions carry a great deal of weight.

I've always found that a bit surprising. I mean, if I, as a policeman or any other authority figure for that matter were to get a confession out of Massoud and it wasn't properly recorded, or maybe if I forget to give him a caution - well then it simply wouldn't be admissible in court. But if a lying, cheating, criminal who's never uttered an honest word in his life, says he heard Massoud confess to the murders in the privacy of their cell - well that can be enough to convict him.

Of course, Massoud knows all about this so he asks to be put in solitary. That way he won't get to speak to any other prisoner and so no one can claim he's confessed to the murders. So my little idea runs into a a bit of a problem. Still, I think I can see a way around it.

There's an old lag in D wing, Ted Pike who's serving fifteen years for armed robbery and GBH. He's helped us out on a few occasions, all off the record of course otherwise he wouldn't be much use to me. Pike's from Carlisle and he wants to be moved to HMP Sladewell so he can be nearer to his family and if I have a word in the right ear I should be able to swing it.

 

* * * * *

 

So I drive up to Strangemarsh and have a quiet word with Pike. I told him how Massoud definitely murdered those lads. How there was no question about it. And how a statement from him might just make it a bit easier to secure a conviction - along with all the other evidence against him.

You see I didn't want Pike to think anything he might come up with would end up being the main evidence against Massoud.

He was a bit reluctant at first but when I mentioned how Massoud's a devout Muslim, Pike eventually agreed to help out. He obviously doesn't have much time for Muslims. Well who does what with all that's been going on?

So according to my instructions, the following day he creates a commotion in the kitchen in D Wing. Basically he complained about the porridge being too lumpy and ended up pouring a pan-full over the cook. Piping hot as well. The poor guy got third degree burns for his trouble. So of course Pike ends up in solitary. Along with Massoud.

Now they're in separate cells of course but every day they get half an hour in the exercise yard under the strict supervision of one of the screws so normally they can't get to talk. But I made sure this screw left them alone for five minutes and next thing I hear, Pike wants me to come back to Strangemarsh for a nice little chat.

* * * * *

 

Pike's prepared to testify in court to the effect that Massoud told him how he'd done the machete killings. I get Pike to sign a statement I'd prepared in advance. Well you've got to bend the rules a little haven't you? It's a hell of a lot better that than letting a killer walk free.

Anyway, Pike's no fool and he wanted to know about Massoud's motive and thought maybe if he'd confessed he'd have explained why he'd done it as well. But of course only Massoud knows the answer to that.

So I report back to Aldis who thinks we might have the beginnings of a case although he's concerned about how there's nothing in the statement that wasn't already in the public domain.

He thinks any defence barrister worth his salt could demolish Pike's account in five minutes.

They could say how he might have seen that documentary about the case and there was nothing in Massoud's confession that hadn't already been mentioned on TV or in the papers as well for that matter. So I need to make a few tweaks to Pike's statement.

 

* * * * *

The only thing that wasn't in the public domain is a rather nasty detail about the murders.

We'd kept that back just to spare the families as much as anything.

After slaying the boys, the assailant left them face down in the grass. He then wiped his weapon on the boy's backs creating these bloody stains. Three lines arranged roughly like an upside down letter 'A' on one of them. More like a number four on the other. Like a kind of motif.

We were going to call them the A4 murders before we decided to keep the information to ourselves. None of us could work out what A4 could possibly mean anyway. The A4 doesn't go anywhere near here. And it could hardly refer to the paper size could it? We couldn't make head nor tail of it.

So I drive up to Strangemarsh again so Pike could sign statement mark two which includes a mention of these bloody marks. Pike wanted to know what the marks meant. He thought maybe if Massoud had mentioned them he'd have explained their meaning as well. He has a point there. We didn't really have an answer to that so I decided to interview Massoud yet again.

Apart from accusing me of fitting him up he wouldn't talk so I showed him the photos with the bloody marks and asked him what was that all about. Then he starts talking. He asks me what I know about the victims. Not much to be honest. We'd been working on the assumption that there wasn't any connection between the victims and their killer. We thought it was probably just a random frenzied attack. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn't have any money on them. There was no sigh of sexual assault. Just two friends out for a country walk.

Massoud wondered if they were more than just friends. Of course I could see what he was getting at but there was no evidence of that being a factor. He called me an ignorant fuckwit which won't do him any favours at all. Then he mentioned how the Nazis used to force queers to wear this pinkish red triangle symbol.

None of us had really seen the lines as forming triangles. When I showed him the photos I saw them upside down for the first time and from that angle I suppose the patterns were very roughly triangular. If you stretch your imagination. Massoud said it could have been a homophobic attack.

I asked him if that was what he was admitting to. He said he was admitting nothing. He was just pointing out my ignorance. Bloody cheek of the man.

 

* * * * *

 

Well this certainly puts a different complexion on things. I spoke to both victims' parents and they were very put out when I asked if their sons were queer but then we had another look at some of their smartphone messages and when you read between the lines and view them in the light of this new lead, it seems distinctly possible that something dodgy might well have been going on.

The parents certainly weren't at all happy to hear about that. One of the dads asked me to get out of his house saying I shouldn't speak ill of the dead. Round these parts most people have no more time for queers than for blacks. When it comes out that a black murdered a couple of queers, they won't know what to think. They'll be torn between wanting to string him up or pat him on the back.

A lot of people in Fullerton have lived in this neck of the woods all their lives. They believe in family values, tradition, patriotism and what have you. They're conservative if you like, with a small C - and a big C as well more often than not. They're not cosmopolitan, metropolitan, bleeding heart liberals.

Put it this way, they're very happy with the way things have been going in the country just lately and they're certainly looking forwards to seeing a few less foreigners on the streets. And let's face it whatever people say, for most of us that's what it's all been about. So with one thing and another it's no wonder those lads didn't 'come out' to their parents.

We asked around the village and it turns out on one occasion the crossing lady at their school noticed them walking hand in hand but they soon stopped when she caught sight of them.

So what if Massoud came across them holding hands? It's enough to make anyone's stomach churn.

If anything this makes me even more certain he did it.

He's Muslim and we all know what they think about queers. It's a criminal offence in most Muslim countries. A capital offence in some. They string them up in Iran.

I just wonder why Massoud brought it up. Maybe he wanted people to know the boys were killed for being queer but without actually admitting he'd done it himself. That sort of makes sense. It kind of puts the blame on the victims.

There's absolutely no doubt in my mind he's as guilty as sin. But we've still got nothing linking him to the scene of the crime and what now seems to be the motive can't be attributed directly to Massoud despite him being a Muslim. Aldis still thinks we need more evidence so I'm going down to Woodhaven to have a nosy around.

 

* * * * *

 

I found out a bit more about this previous machete attack. It looks like Massoud was carrying on with this married woman, and her husband Jacob arrives on his doorstep carrying a machete. He's black as well and it's the rule of the jungle with them.

He's intent on punishing Massoud for going off with his Mrs and they get into a scuffle and Massoud wrestles the machete off Jacob and lays into him. Jacob ends up in hospital and Massoud gets eighteen months for GBH. With time off for good behaviour, he's out in nine months and Jacob still walks with a limp.

I wasn't getting much out of Massoud's friends and family. They've closed ranks and they're all standing up for him. No one will admit he's hates queers for example. Which is a pity. It looks like Massoud's closer to his sister Faiza than anyone else. She's certainly been most vocal in declaring his innocence. She even appeared on the One Show implying he's being fitted up.

Fucking cheek. I asked Aldis if we could sue her for defamation. He suggested a better tactic might be to have word with Tom Gates.

Gates is a sort of unofficial undercover operative. He's worked for the police for getting on fifteen years, usually taking on false identities and inveigling himself into the company of a suspect's family and friends.

He looks for new angles and new evidence, especially when we don't have a strong enough case. And even if there isn't any evidence he usually manages to find some - if you get my drift.

He also gets involved with 'miscarriage of justice' campaign groups or maybe groups trying to hold the police to account, like when the Meade Valley force didn't seem to be pulling their finger out after the murder of that black girl in Dartwich. He basically tries to find ways to undermine the credibility of anyone who tries to rubbish the police.

Now as far as I can tell, Faiza is single and Gates is the sort of man women are drawn to.

He has that aura of mystery that comes from living his life in the shadows. And it helps with him being a half-cast because let's face it they tend to stick to their own kind.

So we set Gates up with a new identity from a kid who died in the eighties. And off he goes to Woodhaven to join this campaign group protesting Masaoud's innocence. It's wasn't long before Gates, or Hashim as he's calling himself now, makes Faiza's acquaintance and in his last report he mentioned a dinner at her place, just the two of them, all very cosy.

 

* * * * *

 

Well, Gates certainly came up with the goods. It turns out there's another sibling, Bilal, who Massoud hasn't spoken to in years. It seems that Faiza didn't really want to talk about it but, putting two and two together, it looks like Bilal's a queer and that's why Massoud doesn't want anything to do with him.

So, to cut a long story short, the CPS agreed there was more than enough evidence and we got a date for the trial. We’re pretty confident Massoud’ll go down for the killings. Apart from anything else the press coverage has been pretty damning. The Mail was fairly typical with his ugly mug on the front page with the headline 'face of evil'. I'm hoping some of the Jury got to see that.

Interestingly, Massoud’s elected not to give evidence on his own behalf. I'm guessing his defence team thinks that won't work in his favour. He's obviously not thick, but he's not particularly articulate and he has this aggressive and arrogant manner which would give the jury a very negative impression.

Still, the fact that he’s chosen not to defend himself won't look good from the Jury's perspective. And I'm sure they’ll form their own opinions seeing him sat in the dock what with his fierce, brooding features and his threatening posture. Makes me think of a wound-up spring.

Put it this way, he's not the sort you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

 

* * * * *

 

Well, things didn't go quite as smoothly as we'd hoped. For a start, Massoud's defence barrister tried to discredit the ID parade. It didn't help when Mrs Bainbridge admitted that they all look the same to her.

Then, they pointed out how Massoud would hardly have drawn attention to the likely homophobic nature of the murders if he himself was known to hate queers. Unfortunately, Gates' information proved to be useless because although brother Billal is definitely queer, this wasn't the reason they'd fallen out. It turned out to be something Billal had said about Massoud being the architect of his own misfortune for carrying on with the wife of a local hard man.

To make matters worse, Mrs Hall wasn't at all impressive in the witness stand. She was all very vague about the blood-stained clothes and when it came out she'd been paid fifteen grand by the Express for her story, the judge asked the jury to disregard her testimony.

The defence made a lot about the lack of any of Massoud's DNA at the crime-scene and they made out that it was hardly conceivable that the assailant wouldn't have left some kind of trace. They said there was plenty of DNA found, almost certainly belonging to the assailant. But none of it was Massoud's.

The prosecution tried to make the case that the chewing gum found at the scene matched the brand Massoud habitually used, but the fact that this didn't have any of his DNA tended to support the defence case in the end. So that was a bit of an own goal.

The prosecution presented the evidence that he'd lied about having been to the village, but the defence rubbished that when they showed how you can drive through Fullerton and not know it because it wasn't well signposted. That was a bummer.

So, now, it all boils down to Pike’s…’confession’.

 

* * * * *

 

I thought Pike gave a good account of himself. He came over as dignified and very plausible. The final version of the confession included Massoud's homophobic ranting and how he made the bloody triangles and the fact there was no mention of them in the public domain was very persuasive.

As the prosecution pointed out, there was no way Pike could have known about this if he hadn't heard it from Massoud. Despite what Faiza had been saying in public, Massoud's defence barrister clearly wasn't prepared to imply that the Police could have provided the information. They obviously decided it wouldn't be a good idea to impugn police integrity. Which was handy for me.

The defence pointed out that, outside the confession, there was no corroborating proof that Massoud was homophobic, but the prosecution argued that it was a common enough attitude for people of his background.

I thought the judge's summing up was pretty fair. He pointed out the case rested entirely on Pike's evidence. He said that the Jury had to consider if the word of a known felon was a sufficiently reliable basis to find Massoud guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but he added that there was no particular reason to doubt the veracity of Pike's account.

The Jury adjourned for four days and when they came back, they still hadn't been able to reach a unanimous verdict. The Judge said the court would accept a majority verdict and they were back again in half an hour with a ten to two majority in favour of a guilty verdict.

It was obvious which two had thought he was innocent because they were both in tears. Well, they didn't have any cause to shed tears for that brute.

So, we got him. Massoud's serving two life sentences. The only way he'll ever see freedom at some point in the very distant future is to admit to his crime and recant. But no, he continues to maintain his innocence. And frankly, as long as he does that, he’ll never get out which is alright by me.

Solitaire

by Ian Dixon Potter

 

This lock-down hasn't made a great deal of difference to us. We don't get out much at the best of times. Being stuck inside all these months must be murder if you can't get on. But for us it's been plain sailing. If anything we're closer now than we've ever been, and after sixty-three years of marriage that's saying something.

The best decision I ever made. Getting married to Claire. I don't mind admitting, she's the light of my life. It's just the two of us now; we don't get any visitors, except the meals-on-wheels bloke and I can't make head nor tail of his accent.

I'm sure he's doing his best but his command of English leaves a lot to be desired and to make matters worse he turns up wearing a face-mask.

I can't think we'd have much to say to each other anyway. I've tried to explain their mistake dozens of times, he just doesn't seem to take it in.

We should both get a cooked lunch every day but for the last few months we've only had one. It's a generous portion, mind, so we're happy to share it. It's not half bad most days. As long as it's nothing fancy like risotto or pasta. Mind you, Claire's appetite's not what it was. I generally finish her half anyway.

I was saying to her only this morning, what's the point of having someone in a job like that if they can't communicate? Especially with him being the only person I get to speak to, from one week to the next, other than Claire.

Still, I shouldn't grumble. As long as you've got one person to talk to. That's all you need, really. I used to have a chat with the checkout girls at the Co-op on the corner but they've all been replaced by machines. I still get to speak to the woman who sorts out any problems in the bagging area, which there usually are. Mind you, she generally has to rush off to sort out someone else's problem. She certainly isn't inclined to pass the time of day.

We used to see Dr Clarkson most weeks, especially with Claire's problem but it's all done over the phone now. Mind you, we've not spoken to him in months.

There'd be a time when we'd have neighbours dropping in umpteen times a day, always coming and going.

We've lived in this house since 1962 and we used to know everyone in the street and everything about them.

There were the Postlethwaites next door and the Bradshaws on the other side. Steven went to school with their Graham. The Hodgesons lived opposite. Then there were the Rileys and the Williams family at number forty-two. Then there was old Mrs Gardener and that couple, the Faircloughs, with the mentally handicapped son.

There wasn't a single one of them I wouldn't stop and have a chat with. If we were going down the shops, we'd have to give ourselves a good half an hour to get to the end of the street. There was a real sense of community. We even had a few street parties over the years, like for the Queen's silver jubilee and the wedding of Charles and Diana. And then Prince Andrew and Fergie. That would have been the last one.

It's not that there's been nowt to celebrate since then but the street's changed beyond recognition. All the old neighbours have moved away or passed on, every one of them gone. All gone; all gone.

Nowadays I don't know a single one of my neighbours. On one side there's a Bangladeshi family who can't speak a word of English. On the other there's a Dutch couple. I think they speak English but their accents are so thick it might as well be double-Dutch, for all I know.

It's the same with those Poles across the road. Most of the street's rented out now and the tenants don't seem to stay longer than a few months at the most. There are several houses full of Romanians or Bulgarians or something. I've heard they sleep half a dozen to a room.

So one way or another the neighbours are all strangers now. There's not a single one of them'd give me the time of day, even if we could speak the same language. There used to be several in our street who worked for Kirkbrights, back in the day. I was a machinist there for the best part of five decades. I retired sixteen years ago and within three years they'd shut up shop. Apparently they couldn't compete with the Chinese. Mind you they'd been in decline since the eighties. When they finally went bankrupt they were down to less than four hundred staff. Still, it decimated the town.

My life used to revolve around Kirkbrights. Virtually every one of my mates worked there as well. They'd been going since 1908. It's a shame they didn't quite make their centenary. People used to say it was the pumping heart of the town. It were certainly a hive of activity. The machines thumping away ten hours a day. You had to shout to hear yourself think. It's all quiet now, quiet as the grave. All gone; all gone.

When Kirkbright's went the social club went as well. We spent many a happy hour in there over the years. Having a good chin-wag over a pint. I can't remember the last time we went out for a drink.

Well, who'd we go with? All our friends have passed on. That's the worst thing about getting to our age. Everyone you've ever cared about, everyone of them gone.

Our closest friends were three couples who we've known since we were teenagers.

We'd have some fine times together. Day trips to Southport or Lytham Saint Annes or up to the Lakes, even Morecambe on one occasion. Once was enough.

We had a few holidays abroad together after everyone's kids had grown up, usually to Spain or to France. We used to call ourselves the 'golden oldies', but they've all passed on now. Roy was the first to go, with cancer, then Stan. Then Nora and Ray, within a few months of each other. Then Celia. Cancer again. Then Yvonne, last Christmas, or perhaps it was the Christmas before.

Anyway they've all gone. It's just the two of us now. All gone; all gone.

Mind you, they might be all gone now but that doesn't take anything away from all those happy times. We're thankful we had them. And grateful for all the memoires.

There's this notion that it's somehow desperately sad when your halcyon days come to an end. When you go into decline and you gradually lose everyone you ever cared for and everything you ever valued, all the things that gave you happiness. But at least Claire and I had it at some point in our lives. That's the important thing. It doesn't matter when. It doesn't matter that it eventually comes to an end, nothing lasts forever.

Still, it's a pity our Steven won't have anything to do with us.

He used to call his mum once a week but even that's stopped now. Claire used to blame me because she doesn't get to see her grandchildren but thankfully she hasn't brought it up lately.

Steven and I never saw eye to eye, politically speaking. But it didn't come between us until about five year ago. I suppose we're both quite strong in our opinions. He's always had fancy ideas and going to university only made matters worse.

To my mind the University of Life teaches you a hell of a lot more about things that really matter.

There was a time when we just agreed to differ but then, all of a sudden, it became very acrimonious. He says people of my age shouldn't be dictating the future for the younger generation. According to Steven, I've kicked our grandchildren in the teeth. He says I've diminished their horizons.

I don't know why they can't just get themselves a job around here. There's no need to go off to Europe to study or to find work. Even if they could.

Mind you, their oldest, Shane's been out of work for over a year, after the cutbacks at Nissan. You'd think he'd have found something by now wouldn't you?

The trouble is, that lad has no gumption, no get up and go. He needs to get on his bike. Maybe he has got himself another job by now. I've heard nothing from any of them in months.

When we did speak, Steven would just go on about how I was responsible for everything that's going wrong. I don't know why I have to take the blame.

It seems like all of sudden, opinions became very entrenched. No one can see the other person's point of view any more. I suppose that's what comes of being given a choice of one thing or t'other. Two extremes. There was no common ground. Of course, there were differences before but they've been magnified out of all proportion. And neither side has any respect for the other.

I know there were always them university types who looked down on the likes of me, who left school at fifteen. But now we're calling the shots, their mild derision's turned into outright animosity.

It's split our family in two. It's a tragedy really. Steven's wife doesn't help. We've never seen eye to eye. I don't know why he couldn't have married a local girl. I'll tell you what, she definitely wears the trousers in that relationship. She has him under her thumb, good and proper. It's often the way nowadays.

She's what you would call very highly-strung. She throws a fit if she doesn't get her way, or if anyone dares contradict her. So he's forever walking on eggshells so as not to upset her. I could tell you some stories about her. I wouldn't be surprised if he's under strict orders to give me the cold shoulder. Still, you'd think he'd call once in a while if only to speak to his mother.

Not that we have anything in common with their generation. The younger ones never knew a time before this Interweb. You know, Googleface and Instamatic, and all that. Steven doesn't even have a real telephone. It's all smart-telephones and tablets. The only tablets I know about are those I get on prescription.

The march of technology. We just can't keep up. For instance, it's not long since Claire used a typewriter. She used to have one of those heavy black iron jobs. She'd make copies with carbon paper. We've still got a box in the attic. She wrote articles for Kirkbright's monthly magazine, while it lasted. Then I bought her one of them portable jobs, although even there it eventually became difficult to get hold of the ribbon. Then she had this electronical typewriter on trial, but she couldn't get on with it. Mind you, that's getting on forty year ago now.

Since then, there's been word processors and then great big computers and now you can do the same job with something the size of a cigar box.

I'm sure it's all for the best, but whichever way you look at it, there's a much bigger distance between our generation and the young ones than there ever was before.

And I don't just mean technology and gadgets. I'm talking about attitudes as well.

I was born in 1938. My attitudes were pretty well set in stone by the late fifties. Which were probably more or less the same attitudes and values people had in the 1850's or the 1750's, for that matter. What I mean is, they hadn't changed for centuries.

Of course, I'm talking about Christian values. I suppose the church never had much truck with new ideas. They kept things constant; preserved the old ways in aspic. You knew where you were. But most people stopped going to church and everything changed.

It started in the 1960's. Not that the Swinging Sixties ever made it this far north, but gradually all these newfangled ideas started creeping in. And it kept on changing, faster and faster. Nowadays, you don't know what you're supposed to believe from one day to the next.

I'm thinking of attitudes to things like marriage and divorce and how to bring up children. Whether you can smack them or not, for example. The occasional clout round the ear never did me any harm. Nor Steven for that matter. Mind you the last time I clipped his ear, he clouted me back.

Then there are attitudes to abortion and to a woman's role in the home and to homosexuals and to coloureds and to smoking and what you can and can't eat. The latest thing is gender. There used to be two. Now there's at least half a dozen, so they say. And what are we supposed to call coloureds nowadays? That keeps on changing. I can't keep up, and if you get it wrong you don't half get some black looks. Well, you probably can't say that now can you?

For instance, I smoke Negrohead pipe tobacco. Well, that's what it said on the tin. On account of it being all black and curly. Then they changed it's name to Blackjack. Only recently, mind.

I don't know why they can't leave things alone.

Mind you, you can't get anything like the range of pipe tobaccos nowadays. The Co-op won't stock it, at all. I have to get it delivered in plain brown paper packages, as if it were something to be ashamed of.

Claire used to like the smell of my pipe, but she changed with the times and it got to the stage where she wouldn't let me smoke in the house or even in the backyard, if the wind's blowing in this direction. Mind you she doesn't make such a fuss nowadays.

Stan and Roy were big pipe smokers as well. The three of us would get together in the snug at the Plough. By the end of the evening the smoke was so thick you couldn't see to the far side of the room. Mind you, it gave the place atmosphere. Literally.

It was a bloody nuisance when they banned smoking in pubs. It's no fun sitting outside in all weathers. To my mind, a pipe and a pint go together. It's natural. Like bacon and eggs. It seems to me that there's no greater proof of a divine creator than the way certain completely unrelated things just go together perfectly. Like fish and chips, bread and butter, bangers and mash, and what have you.

Anyway, we smokers suddenly became pariahs. It seemed to happen overnight.

All that fuss about passive smoking. What about passive intolerance of other people's pleasures? Other people's opinions as well, come to think of it. That's where it all started. They'll be banning eating red meat next, mark my word. It'll go underground. Black market black pudding; under the counter lamb chops; steakeasies.

So when we couldn't smoke inside any longer we just stopped going down the Plough. Mind you, it's not what it was. They call it a 'gastropub' now.

We thought we'd give it a try for our sixtieth wedding anniversary but we weren't impressed. They seemed to put more effort into composing the menu than anything else. Every dish deserved a long paragraph, no ingredient went unmentioned and each one was preceded by at least a couple of adjectives. Snipped Chinese chives, for god's sake!

And they wouldn't leave you alone. Asking you if everything was alright every five minutes. I told them it would be if they'd only let us eat our dinner in peace.

To make matters worse it's this nouvelle cuisine. Give me oldvelle cuisine any day of the the week. Apart from anything else the portions were tiny. Claire said at least it wouldn't give anyone a heart attack - although the bill just might.

When we were done, I was still hungry. I had to pop into the kebab shop next door. It's no wonder they do a roaring trade.

The Plough used to be bulging at the seams on a Saturday night. Nowadays, half our neighbours are Muslims and they wouldn't be seen dead in a pub. So it's no wonder the place couldn't survive as it was.

There's no real sense of community now or at least not in the local meaning of the word. The young ones find their communities on the Interweb but that's not much use if you can't make head nor tail of it. Even before this lockdown, kids would spend all their time indoors using this sociable media. They don't even watch TV any more.

Not that we had a TV when I was growing up. We'd been living here a few years when we got our first set. 1966, just in time for the World Cup. That was a good year. They used to say TV killed the art of conversation, but if anything it gave us something to talk about, when there were only two or three channels and nearly everyone watched the same things. Now there's dozens of channels and nowt worth watching.

I've no time for all this reality TV. They make out it's real but it's all very contrived. Most of the time you feel you're being duped.

It were the wireless when I were a lad. I'd listen to Billy Cotton's band show, Hancock's Half Hour, Dick Barton Special Agent, The Goons, Round the Horne and Al Reid.

All gone now. All gone.

If you compare my childhood to my grand-children's they've absolutely nothing in common. I used to be out in the woods, building dens, climbing trees, fishing for tiddlers, or out on my bike with Eric and Cyril. They were my best mates at school. Both long gone now.

Anyway, these were more or less the same things my dad'd get up to when he were a lad and his dad before him. But that's all changed now. There's a new housing estate where the woods used to be and if you want to get out into the countryside you have to get onto the bypass or try and negotiate that massive roundabout. Neither are safe for a kid on a bike.

I blame the planners. They couldn't have made a worse job of it if they'd deliberately set out to ruin the town. The town centre's virtually unrecognisable, especially since they demolished the market hall and built that new shopping centre. All the old family owned businesses are gone. The only shops in the high street are chains so you could just as well be in any other town in the country.

Someone once said how 'buildings are the theatres of memory', or summat like that. But if I think about the buildings which were important in my life, you know, I don't think there's a single one left standing. All I have are the memories and as often as not no-one to share them with.

Apart from Claire.

The house where I grew up went in the seventies. The whole street was levelled. They said it was a slum and not safe for human habitation. They built a tower block in it's place and that certainly isn't safe for human habitation. What with lifts that stink of piss, dreadful condensation and now all that fuss with the cladding.

Give me the old terraces any day, even if we didn't have an indoor privy. At least you had your own front door and your own backyard. There were none of these soulless corridors plastered with graffiti and smelling of other folk's cooking.

My old school's been turned into what they call an 'academy'. I was telling Claire. Last time I walked past, I noticed this new sign. Under the name of the school they have what they call a 'tag line'. 'A high achieving multicultural community for learning.' For all the good that will do. Schools didn't need tag lines in my day.

And the place is unrecognisable. The Victorian buildings have been replaced by glass boxes.

It's all glass, steel and concrete these days. They're such unfriendly materials. What's wrong with brick and stone and slate? You can hold a brick in your hand. These new buildings have no human scale and they turn their back on everything that went before. They're plain ugly and these new materials don't weather at all well. If anything, traditional buildings look even better as time goes by, but these new ones end up all streaked and grubby after a year or two.

When Kirkbright's closed they tore down the old workshops and built a multi-storey car park. More concrete, of course. Then there's a Ladbrokes, where the old social club used to be. In fact, every other shop round here's either a bookmakers or a fried chicken place. That tells you something.

Even the library's an Indian restaurant now. I whiled away many an hour in there, over the years. Especially after I retired. I'd go in to read the papers and have a chin-wag about the day's news with some of the other OAPs. Where are we supposed to go now? The youth club where Claire and I first met, was closed in the eighties. Even the building had to go, when they built that Mosque. The ABC cinema where we used to go courting has been replaced by a tanning boutique and health spa. And the church where we got married and they christened our Steven has been turned into flats.

They say we leave footprints in the sands of time, but I get the feeling that someone's walking behind me with a brush, sweeping away any trace of my life.

All gone. All gone.

I really will have to do something about this meals-on-wheels. Claire's lost her enthusiasm for cooking and the best I can do is open a tin. She doesn't even do the laundry anymore. That was always her province. I can't make head nor tail of that machine, so I do what I can in the bathtub.

I try to make stuff last. She was always too eager to throw things in the linen box when they had plenty of life in them. She had that machine going five days a week, which is a bit daft when it's just the two of us. I used to say it was one of her hobbies. Playing cards, reading, hiking and laundering.

She's given most of them up now. She doesn't even get around with a duster as often as she used to.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. A bit of dust never did anyone any harm. At least I can tell from the thickness of dust how long something's been put down. And hiking's out of the question. With my hip, it's a major expedition to get to the end of the street.

She doesn't even read much nowadays. I found one of her library books under the sofa last week. I could tell by the dust it had been there quite a while and I noticed it's nearly twelve months overdue. Not that it matters much - now the library's gone I can't even return it.

We used to play cards with the golden oldies. Mostly whist and canasta.

When it was down to just the two of us we'd play gin rummy and cribbage but Claire's lost her enthusiasm for cards. Now I come to think of it, she's lost her enthusiasm for most things.

But we talk a lot. Well, I do most of the talking, but she's a very good listener. I don't know what I'd do without her.

I still get the cards out, but more often than not I end up playing on my own. Well, it passes the time.

No, I can't say I mind at all.

You just sit there and watch. That's alright. I'm glad of the company.

Love in the time of Corona

by Ian Dixon Potter

 

This lock-down is playing havoc with my sex life. I'm actually beginning to think I'd be better off in a relationship. Which would be a first for me. Except of course we'd have to be living together to form a bubble and frankly living with a girl really isn't my style. To be perfectly honest any relationship longer than a few hours isn't my style.

I usually meet girls using a variety of dating apps. And almost always we...well...consummate the relationship on the first date. If you can call it a relationship.

I always suggest meeting in a local watering hole and after the preliminaries are over I suggest a 'night cap' back at my place. Which is conveniently just round the corner.

I share a two bedroom flat with an Australian guy, Craig. He jokes I bring a different girl back every night. Which is an exaggeration. It's rarely more than five nights a week. He's envious of course.

If girl comes back here, I know she's fair game. Put it this way, we both know exactly what's going to happen. From time to time I meet a girl who doesn't want to come back on the first date.

Well, it takes all sorts. But if I think they're worth it I suggest a second date which usually consists of yours truly cooking a meal for them. So I ask Craig to keep out of the way for a couple of hours.

I've had to become quite adept in the kitchen. Of course I create a romantic mood with low lights and appropriate music. Maybe even candles. Then after dinner we move to the sofa and one thing tends to lead to another.

Sometimes they need a degree of er...persuasion. It's like a military exercise. It's a case of making a move - what I think of as a sortie, then pulling back if I meet with resistance and then gradually building up to another sortie and so-on until they eventually give in. Persistence always pays off in the end.

Of course for most girls any reluctance is only for show. So they don't come over as easy. Which in this day and age is a bit daft if you ask me. But whether it's genuine or not I'm determined to overcome their resistance one way or another. After all aren't persistence and determination generally regarded to be good qualities? At least in a man. In a woman they can come over as bloody minded and strident.

Anyway, I don't think I've ever pushed too hard. Put it this way, I've never had any complaints. At the outset girls often say they're looking for more than just a one night stand so of course I say the same. To be perfectly honest I'll say anything to get what I want.

Afterwards, I tell them I'll be in touch, but in reality I always wait for them to call me.

If they do, then they're obviously keen so I tell them I'm not ready for a one to one but if they're interested we could be...'friends with benefits?'.

Now in my experience only about ten percent of girls are up for it but frankly that's more than enough. After all there are only so many hours in a day. Although 'friend with benefits' doesn't exactly describe the situation. They're not really friends. I don't do female friends.

I choose my friends because we have interests in common. Two interests in particular, fast cars and sport, especially rugby. Some girls might pretend to like cars but I don't think they do, not really. If I ask their opinion about a car I've seen in the street or in a magazine all they ever mention is the colour.

And when I get together with either my rugby mates or the petrolheads, it's an unspoken rule that none of us ever have a girl in tow. That would only cramp our style. After all we wouldn't be able to talk about the same things would we? Not cars, not rugby and definitely not girls.

Well I'm sure girls talk about us when they get together. They probably talk about very little else.

Well, maybe shopping and hair products.

The truth is I only want one thing from a girl – but don't get me wrong. I respect women. It's just that they have their agendas and we have ours. And women like me. They like the way they've always got my complete attention when we're together. Well you've got to seem interested haven't you. It's all part of the game. If I'm perfectly honest it is like game for me. And one way and another it's a game I usually win.

But this lock-down has put a stop to all that. It's a disaster. I feel like I've been castrated.

 

* * * * *

 

At the start of the lock-down I was still swiping right a few times a day even though there was no chance to hook up. Frankly it had become a bit of a habit and it's good for the ego to get plenty of matches. At least when the lock-down ends I can hit the ground running.

One of these girls, Lauren, suggested we talk using Zoom. The only reason I agreed was I thought cybersex might be on the cards. It's a poor substitute for the real thing but it's better than nothing. After all the visual component is a big deal for most men. For some women as well.

Either way I suppose it's the ultimate form of safe sex.

So I got talking with Lauren and I tried to edge the conversation in that direction.

But she wasn't keen which is a pity because she's very pneumatic. That's my word for sexually desirable. She's a curvy short haired brunette with pale skin and freckles and strong eyebrows which almost meet in the middle. That description probably doesn't do her justice but she's very much my type. It's a pity she's not up for cybersex.

Before the lock-down I would often take photos of girls in er... well ...compromising positions. Even videos sometimes. I realise that from their perspective it's a really bad idea. There's no way I'd post them on line or show them to anyone else. But of course they can't know that for sure. Of course they're for my eyes only. Well to be precise for another part of my anatomy.

So to my mind it's a very good sign if the passion of the moment overtakes their common sense. It shows that they're more of what you might call a sexual being. In comparison to those who have the good sense to refuse. After all we're not all equally sexual. In my experience girls vary a lot from one to another.

I'm not making any judgements. We all have our different priorities. Some girls prioritise their careers or maybe getting into a long term relationship, or getting married and having babies. Well I don't give a fuck about any of those things. I don't mind admitting my number one priority is sex and I like girls who're the same.

Lauren described me as a hedonist. I suppose I am. There's nothing wrong with the pursuit of pleasure. It's the only thing you can really rely on. Everything else is a preamble. A means to an end. Show me a man who claims to value anything other than his own gratification and I'll show you a liar or a fool. This famous writer was asked on his death bed if he had any regrets. He said 'yes, not enough sex'. Well I definitely won't be in that position. After all, who looks back from their death bed and wishes they'd spent more time in the office?

I started a law degree but flunked out. I'm a broker now, in the City. That's like a game as well. Buying and selling. You win some, you lose some. You can't charm stocks and shares but there's still a big element of persuasion. I have to persuade clients to trust me to identify the companies that are going to do well. Between you and me, they'd be no worse off sticking a pin in the bushiness pages of the financial times. On average, most of us don't do any better than that. But we tell the clients a very different story.

That's why you don't get many women in my job. I think most women are basically too honest - which doesn't get them anywhere in The City. To succeed they need to be as self interested and aggressive and competitive as we are - which are very unattractive qualities in a woman.

The job pays the rent but it's hardly a vocation and doesn't deserve any more than the bare minimum of my time and effort. In fact for most of the day my mind is on what I'm going to do in the evening or at the weekend. And preparing for it when the boss isn't looking.

In my experience the most interesting and rounded people I know have pretty undemanding jobs. The ones who are focussed on their careers tend to be as dull as dishwater. They seem to have little interest or knowledge outside their own narrow field of work.

And it's even worse for women. With all the obstacles in their way, If they want to rise through the ranks, women have to devote themselves heart and soul to their career. As a consequence everything else in their lives becomes a very low priority and their work is all they ever want to talk about.

I've met a lot of that type. I have to make a very big effort to stop my eyes glazing over.

So when Lauren told me that she's a product designer I had to stifle a yawn.

But as it turns out, in her case it's not so bad because she looks at the world with a designers eye which is actually quite interesting most of the time. She even knows a thing or two about car design.

If I mention a particular car that interests me she'll google it and comment on its lines. She knows nothing about what goes on under the bonnet but she has a lot to say about the visual design and the development of a particular style.

For example we both really like the Porsche nine-eleven and she told me all about it's origins in the design of earlier models going back as early as the 1940's. I was certainly impressed.

And it's not just cars. If I tell her I'm thinking of buying a new smartphone or a new laptop or whatever, she'll talk about the visual design of all the options.

So Lauren's that rare exception to the rule. A woman with a decent job who's actually interesting to talk to.

 

* * * * *

 

Although Lauren's not up for Cybersex I get the impression she's quite sexual underneath. I'm definitely looking forwards to finding out for certain.. When this lock-down's eventually over.

So we talk about other things. It's a unique experience for me. Normally the focus of any conversation with a girl is becoming intimate with her at the earliest opportunity. Which means having to present myself in a particular way so I seem to be suitable 'boyfriend material'.

So I tend to concentrate on things a girl's most likely to be interested in. For example it always seems to go down well if I say I like nothing better than travel and top restaurants. But with Lauren it's as if I can talk about anything. There's no point pretending to be someone I'm not. I cant keep that up for ever and this lock-down could go on for months.

I feel I can be entirely natural with her. There's no agenda, no ulterior motive. Well at least not in the short term. And I don't do long term anyway. I can relax. It's as if I'm with one of my mates. In fact to be perfectly honest the conversation is actually a good deal more interesting.

It's funny how I get on like a house on fire with my mates in a group but one to one it's not quite the same. We certainly never do Zoom. I've had no contact with any of them since the lock-down began. But with Lauren I've been Zooming most evenings for six weeks now. The calls often go on for two or three hours and we never run out of things to talk about.

We've been talking about all the things we're going to do together after the lock-down. We're even planing to go on holiday together. We're thinking of renting a Porsche and going for a long weekend, maybe to Wales – which in my experience is the best place for good driving roads.

She even wants to share the driving. I'm not sure about that. Well maybe. As long as there's no parallel parking involved.

Lauren talks a lot about feelings. About how she feels about the lock down and being stuck in a house with her parents and being separated from her grandmother who she can't see because she's in a care home and they don't allow visitors.

I don't usually do feelings. Guys generally don't. It's not something that ever comes up. Lauren says we're afraid to show our vulnerability. She says it's as if we're in competition with each other like we were in the wild.

I suppose our banter does tend to be competitive. Who's driven fastest, who's scored the most tries – and the most chicks. Of course we're always putting each other down. If anyone showed any vulnerability they'd be laughed at.

I know for certain that a couple of my mates have been through some rough patches but they never mention it.. Or at least not to me. Perhaps I'm not the type people use as a shoulder to cry on. I probably wouldn't fancy that anyway.

I don't mean I'm unsympathetic. Just because I'm in control of my own feelings it doesn't necessarily mean I can't understand other people's. I just wouldn't know what to say.

I've certainly never been one to wear my emotions on my sleeve. Or at least not since I was a kid. Well kids give vent to every feeling don't they. That's why they're so fucking tiresome. But for an adult I've always thought of it as somehow self indulgent to let everyone know how you're feeling all the time. I don't want to burden others with my ups and downs.

Not that I have ups and downs. I'm steady as a rock. Always have been. As a kid, my role models in films and TV were always the strong silent types. Unflappable men of few words. It didn't matter what life threatening situation they were in, they never lost their cool. That was how I wanted to be. Keep calm and carry on. Put a brave face on everything. A stiff upper lip. Stoical - in other words as cool as a cucumber.

I can't stand all those reality TV shows where someone always has to burst into tears. It's all orchestrated anyway. And I can't abide sentimentality. It's not even a genuine emotion, it's just mawkish and cheap. When I'm watching a drama I absolutely hate having my feelings manipulated. These people aren't real. Why should I give a fuck about them?

But Lauren's just the opposite. She's in touch with her feelings and tries to encourage me to talk about mine. She asked me who I talk to when I'm down. The fact is no-one because I'm never down. She didn't believe that. She wanted to know if anything really bad has ever happened to me.

I suppose the worst thing was Jamie's suicide. He was my closest friend at school. We used to hang out together all the time. When we left school he decided not to go to uni and got this office job in Swindon. He's in insurance. Or was. He'd only been there six months when he took his own life.

He seemed to have everything to live for. He was a smart, good looking guy with a steady job and a flat of his own. He didn't leave a note so nobody had any idea why he'd done it. Everyone asked me because they thought he was closer to me then anyone else. His parents sent me a letter, trying to find out if I knew anything. I didn't know what to say.

A few weeks before the suicide I visited him in Swindon and stayed the night. He didn't seem depressed or anything. Just his usual self. He's fairly quiet compared to most of my friends. Well, he was.

The only thing I could think of was perhaps when he was settled in his little flat and in a steady office job where he could easily have stayed for the next fifty years, he saw his life stretching out ahead of him in Swindon and perhaps he didn't like what he saw.

In some ways he was a mystery to me. He'd only had one girlfriend as long as I'd known him and that didn't last long. I once asked him about it and he said none of the girl's he'd met interested him in the slightest, but the fact is, he really didn't put himself out there. He never used dating apps for a start. Well not that he told me.

And most of my friends usually make some comment when they see a hot girl. For example if they're stacked they'll say something like 'you don't get many of those to the pound'. Or 'I wouldn't mind taking that for a test drive'. You know the sort of thing. It's just banter. And I'm no exception.

It's not disrespectful. If a girl dresses a certain way you know they're doing it to get our attention. I'm sure they want to be complimented, whatever they say about doing it for themselves.

But Jamie never joined in. Not once. Lauren suggested he might have been queer but 'no way Jose'. I would definitely have known. No question about it.

She asked if it would have been a problem for me. Well it would have reflected on me wouldn't it? Because we hung out together, people would have started asking questions. Lauren didn't understand why that would have been such a big deal. But it is isn't it? I know it's not politically correct to mention it these days but being called a queer is just about worst insult you can throw at a teenage boy. In the playground it's still the most common form of abuse.

There were two of them in our year at school. To be perfectly honest there was something about their manner which grated on me. When they were together they were always bitchy and sarcastic. They couldn't say anything without some queer innuendo and they always referred to other boys as 'she'.

One of them was as camp as Christmas. More feminine than most girls. He was a parody of a queer. I don't know why some of them have to be like that. I don't mind admitting he made me uncomfortable. The other one wasn't so bad. I suppose you wouldn't have known if he hadn't come out. Lauren thought perhaps Jamie was the same but hadn't come out to me because he knew I was homophobic. But I'm not homophobic. I didn't bully them or anything. I just ...avoided them. I suppose the idea of having sex with a man just disgusts me. I can't think of anything worse.

Lauren wanted you know if I'd ever said that to Jamie. Come to think of it, it might have come up in conversation the last time we met. I remember he mentioned some gay colleague and how it was more common than most people think. He said something about how straight men in prison often end up turning queer. I joked at the time that it probably wasn't the best thing to be taking about when we were sharing a bed together.

Now she's got me wondering. Lauren implied that Jamie might have been in love with me. Christ I hope not.

 

* * * * *

 

Lauren's so... alive. She has this shining intensity I've never seen in anyone before.

And she's super smart. She' not just a doer, she's a she's a thinker as well. She analyses everything.

She mentioned some Greek guy who said 'a life not contemplated isn't worth living'. She's like that. She has to get to the bottom of everything. There's usually only one thing I want to get to the bottom of.

My god, do we talk. For hours and hours and we never get bored with each other.

Especially about relationships. At first I didn't want to tell her about my usual approach to dating. One night stands and all that. But she has this way of encouraging me to open up about all sorts of things. Things I've never talked about before. Things I've never told anyone. Especially my fears and vulnerabilities.

For example we worked out that I avoid long term relationships because I think I might be found out. That deep down I'm afraid that maybe if a girl gets to know me better she might reject me. How I don't want to put myself in any situation where I might fail in some way. I told her how I once heard this old Chinese saying. Something along the lines of 'Life is like a river, don't swim against the current.'

That made sense to me. I always thought that the recipe for happiness is to recognise your strengths and your weaknesses and to avoid situations where your weaknesses might cause you to fail. And seek out situations where your strengths allow you to succeed. Like sport in my case, particularly rugby. I've always been good at sports. Ever since school.

Lauren said our society elevates 'children's ball games' out of all proportion and that being good at kicking a sphere into a net doesn't compare to excelling at anything important. Like achieving a successful relationship. Ouch! She might have a point but she obviously doesn't know much about rugby.

She thinks sport and trashy TV are the new opium of the people. They dumb us down and divert us from engaging with the world around us. They're an escape from reality. I've always thought reality was overrated. Mind you it's the only place your can get your leg over.

According to Lauren, fear is the strongest human emotion and it holds us back from realising our true potential. She has this way of probing. Of getting to the nub of things.

She wasn't at all impressed when I told her about my work. She says I'm just a cog in the vast capitalist machine which puts money in the pockets of those who already have more than enough and does worse than nothing for everyone else.

She thinks if I had a more worthwhile job I'd have more self esteem and I wouldn't need to get it from sexual conquests and puerile ball games. Her words not mine - but she might have a point. We talked about other jobs I could do like charity fund raising or human rights law.

It's worth thinking about.

We talk about anything and everything. About the right way to live. About regrets, about values, about love, about friendship. She encouraged me to set up a zoom conversation with my mates. They were mostly reluctant at first but eventually four of them came round to the idea. It wasn't a great success.

It's made me realise how conversations with my mates are so superficial and so formulaic. The usual repeated mantras about fast cars, sport and hot girls. Just variations on a theme. Nothing new, nothing original, nothing deep. I would make some comment and I knew exactly how each of my mates was going to respond. It was like pushing buttons on a vending machine. Utterly predictable and unchallenging. The conversational equivalent of junk food.

It's totally different with Lauren. It's weird, we're not even in the same room but when we're talking I feel more alive than I've ever felt before. It's as if I was just going through he motions before.

In some ways I feel like I've wasted my life. I might have had a good time but I've ignored my own feelings and put everyone else at arms length. I've immersed myself in trivia, in material things and children's pastimes. Anything to prevent myself having to deal with real emotions, real ideas. Well, that's all going to change now. And the first step is to delete all my dating apps and try to have a one to one relationship with Lauren.

The lock-down's going to be eased. We're going to be allowed to meet up with one person outside our household. After three months of Zooming I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to our first physical get together. And I'm not just talking about sex. Which is unusual for me.

Craig's lost his job so he's going back to Australia just as soon as the restrictions are lifted. Lauren's tired of living with her parents so we've talked about her moving in here and forming a bubble. There's a part of me that's very enthusiastic about the idea but if I'm honest at the same time there's a degree of …well, trepidation. We're meeting up face to face for the first time tomorrow. This should be interesting.

The New Normal

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

We've finally managed to find a new carer. Heidi, from Litchenburg. I hope she'll be better than the last one. She was neither use nor ornament.

Ralph said we can't afford to be fussy because it's difficult to find a carer at any price these days. But I'll not have any old Tom, Dick or Harry.

This Heidi came with glowing references from the infirmary. Only she had to leave on account of her not having that unsettled stomach..no unsettled status.

I don't know why we couldn't find a nice English girl. Like that Moira.

Ralph pointed out she was actually Scottish. Which makes her a foreigner now. Thanks to me he says.

I don't know why I have to take the blame for everything.

Ralph says he's got to blame someone and I'm to hand.

He should show his Mother a little respect. Anyway this Heidi's a pretty girl and she's single.

I told her Ralph's single as well. And he has a good job and a full head of hair. Well I'm only looking out for him.

She was couch surfing whatever that means. Her landlord threw her out. Apparently she'd have to go or he'd be prosecuted. Mind you Mrs Hargreaves rents a room to a foreigner and she's not been persecuted. Ralph says Mr Abdula isn't a foreigner, but he looks foreign to me.

Apparently there's nothing for her in Litchenburg and she wants to stay here if she can. Despite recent events she says she love's everything about England. Apart from the food.

I said what's wrong with the food? You can't beat English food if you want a good solid, substantial meal.

We told her we couldn't employ her officially on account of her not having this settled station. Ralph knows all about that. He works for an engineering company. He says there are hardly any British people with the skills they need and it's virtually impossible to employ a foreigner. They've had to cut production in half.

They make braking systems for cars. Mind you they can't sell anything like as many as before what with all the EU regulations.

Anyway, Ralph offered her nine pounds an hour cash in hand. Eight hours a day, five days a week – basically, when he's at work. And she gets free accommodation - a comfortable room of her own with a nice view of the park across the road. Well there is if you lean out the window.

 

* * * * *

 

He’s never had much luck with the opposite sex hasn’t Ralph. I think he sets his sights too high. He won’t have anything to do with the local girls. He thinks they're common. And he’s not far wrong.

He likes nice middle class girls with an education and something to say for themselves, but there aren't many of those round here. If he does meet any 'nice middle class girls' it never seems to go anywhere. When he tells them what he does for a living, their eyes glaze over, or so he says. According to Ralph they’re all looking for lawyers and stockbrokers and such like. Not someone who uses a spanner for a living. He says English women are very class conscious and materialistic.

Which is a bit insulting if you ask me.

They fall into four categories according to Ralph. You’ve got what he calls 'steerage'. They're the women round here, the common ones. Then there's the 'Sloane Ranger' types – very materialistic, then the hard nosed career women – very driven and cold as ice, or so he says and then there's the blue stockings. They’re the only ones he really likes.

Of course they don't actually wear blue stockings. Well not all the time. You know, lefty intellectual women, very long hair and loose clothing, usually teachers or charity workers. Mind you they’re mostly vegetarians. I tell him he doesn’t want a woman with an eating disorder. Anyway, he never went to university so he doesn’t get a look in with them.

Ralph thought he should try to meet a foreign woman but they’re difficult to find these days.

He does this inter-web dating. And speedo dating, whatever that is. I thought it might be dating in swimwear but he says it's nothing of the sort. He says it's for youngsters anyway. Not for men of his age. I suggested he try carbon dating. He didn't like that.

 

* * * * *

 

I tell you one thing. Heidi's certainly knows her way around the kitchen. Most of my carers have been next to useless in that department. Mind you the last one was a dab hand with a microwave.

Heidi served up some sausages for lunch. Bratwurst she called them. I didn't think you could get foreign food any more. Brat wurst. Apparently wurst means sausage. I said that's one way of dealing with naughty children. She's got an infectious laugh has Heidi.

She said where would we be without our sense of humour? I suggested Germany. Not that I dislike the Germans. I've never had much to do with them. We used to get a lot of Poles round here and they don't like the Germans one little bit. Well they're in the same club now. Unlike us.

It's probably for the best. If Britain's going to be great again.

It's such a same that Boris had to step down after all he did for us. I know he made a pig's ear of the pandemic but if you ask me that wasn't entirely his fault. Well, it's probably better to put it all behind us. What's the use of blame and reincarnation anyway.

Ralph says we got the government we deserved. He called them a useless bunch of populist spivs and shysters, but he was only saying that to get at me. He used to be quite patriotic but nowadays he does nothing but criticise his own country. He says how can he be patriotic when more than half the population are either fools, racists or deluded reactionaries. Which is very nice.

Heidi says that nowadays Europeans think of the English as small minded and insular.

That's as maybe, but I told her there were simply too many foreigners. I just couldn't get on with them.

Heidi said she's a foreigner and we get on very well.

I said I don't mean you. As I say they were mostly Poles round here. According to Heidi if I'd got to know the Polish people I might have got on with them as well. I don't know about that.

She says she's got more in common with most English people than she has with with her own countrymen. She thinks sharing a nationality doesn't mean you get on with someone.

Well it's too late now anyway. Most of them Poles have gone home. Ralph says you can't get a decent builder now, unless you pay through the nose.

Anyway this is only a small island. We can't have every Tom, Dick and Harry coming here. There's just too many people. Not enough housing for a start. Especially now you can't get the builders. And what about the waiting lists? I had to wait months for my hip. Mind you the NHS was bad enough before but it's in chaos now. I thought the it was going to be better off if we left the EU. According to Heidi if all those European nurses hadn't left we'd have made a much better job of the pandemic.

She said she really loved working at the infirmary. Apparently she had a lot of friends there.

Now her life's been turned upside down and she doesn't know what the future holds. Then she burst into tears and and ran into the kitchen. I didn't know where to look.

 

* * * * *

 

Maureen came round this morning. Her and Gerald have just got back from a fortnight in Alicante. She said it was long enough to be away on account of all that foreign food. I know what she means. Me and Ralph went to Benidorm last year and I didn't get on at all well with the local cuisine. I can't be doing with that paella. They throw all sorts of stuff in. Bones and shells and claws and what have you. I don't know what they do with the edible bits.

We had most of our meals in the English pub. They did a very serviceable steak and kidney pie. But it's not same as you get here. I suppose they can't get the ingredients. Even their fish and chips isn't quite right somehow. I think it's the batter -

Talking of which, there's a new fish and chip shop on the corner. Where that Polish grocer used to be. Which is a blessing. That place was neither use nor ornament.

The Austrian cake shop's gone as well. I used to quite like their Viennese fancies.

Ralph was disappointed. I think he had an eye for that blonde girl on the till. Talk about a Viennese fancy.

Well we won't be going back to Benadryl anytime soon. What with the exchange rate. Maureen said a cup of coffee costs nearly ten pounds now! Then you've got the cost of a visa. And they throw you into quarantine for a fortnight if you haven't got an impunity certificate.

I think we'll have to go to Blackpool next year. That’s what most people are doing now so we'll have to book well ahead. We can always try Morecambe or Scarborough. What with global warming they'll soon be as hot as Spain anyway. And we won't need to worry about speaking Spanish. Not that you need to speak Spanish in Spain! We didn't get to meet many Spaniards anyway. Apart from the woman who cleaned our room and she couldn't understand a word of English. In this day and age!

We used to see more foreigners here than in Benadryl. Mind you that’s changed now. Now we've got our country back. Ralph's says sensible people are starting to wonder if we’ve done the right thing. Experts and that. I tell him you don’t want to listen to them experts. What do they know?

Maureen says she voted leave just to keep them Muslims out. I think a lot of people did.

She's always going on about how Spain's overrun with them and how hardly a week goes by without some atrocity.

I said I'm sure they're not all going out blowing themselves up. I should put Ralph and Maureen in the same room and stand back and watch the fireworks.

Maureen said she doesn't know where Ralph gets his fancy ideas from and there'd be no room for wishy washy liberals if them Muslims take over. Apparently they execute homosexuals in Iran. Mind you, Maureen doesn't have much time for them either. I think she's a bit torn there.

I reminded her how tolerance used to be a great British virtue - She said it still is but we shouldn't go wasting it on the likes of them Muslims.

She thinks if we'd stayed in the EU we'd have had eighty thousand Turks coming over here looking for work. Well I suppose that is what they told us.

Maureen said she has nothing against Europeans. They're mostly like us, even the French.

But the Muslims are nothing like us and they turn to violence at the slightest provocation. She said you can't open a newspaper without reading about Muslims getting up to something deplorable -

I told her you can't believe everything you read in the papers. Mind you I think the Daily Express has it about right.

Maureen asked if we'd found a new carer. It turns out she saw Heidi pushing me into Boots.

Now we don't want anyone knowing we've an unregistered foreigner in the house so I told her she wasn't a carer. I said you can’t find a carer for love nor money. I told her she was Ralph’s girlfriend Heidi.

That took her by surprise. She said 'What’s come over him?'

I said he just hadn’t met the right girl. Until now. She wanted to know if Heidi's a local girl.

I had to think on my feet - so to speak. I said she's from somewhere out east. Which is true enough.

She said 'You mean like Romania?' I said no, Kings Lynn.

Apparently she thought Heidi looked a bit Slavic.

Then Ralph arrives and Maureen congratulates him on his new girlfriend which throws him into confusion. Fortunately he soon cottoned on.

Maureen thought the name Heidi sounded a bit foreign so I told her it was a very popular name in Norfolk. She said she associated the name Heidi with snow topped mountains and there weren't many of those in Norfolk last time she looked. I said perhaps they’re compensating.

Then she mentions her Gerald’s got a cousin in Kings Lynn. I said I doubt if they know each other.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. I don’t think she believed a word of it anyway. Well it was a bit far fetched. The idea that Ralph's actually got himself a girlfriend.

I wonder if she’ll report us to the immigration office. Maureen is a bit of a busy body. Always poking her nose into other people’s business. And she'll certainly be happy to see another foreigner deported.

Mind you that’s most people round here. We'll have to make sure she doesn’t get to meet Heidi. Somehow I don’t think she’s up to a convincing Norfolk accent.

So no more walks in the park or trips down the shops. I told Ralph that perhaps we should think about letting her go. It's no use if she can't be seen taking me out of the house. But Ralph wasn't at all keen to see the back of her.

After a lot of probing from me he finally admits he's sweet on her, which I knew anyway.

Mind you he didn't think she’d be interested in him. I told him there’s only one way to find out.

He said he's no good at that sort of thing. He'd make some clumsy advance and she’d reject him as per usual and then there’d be a difficult atmosphere. I

I said 'faint heart nere won fair lady'. That’s always been Ralph's problem. A faint heart. The more he's attracted to a woman the more nervous he gets, and the more of a ham fisted mess he makes of it.

That’s life. There’s a gamble behind anything worthwhile. The saddest thing is never entering the fray. Marrying his Dad was a gamble. What if he'd turned out to be a wife beater or an adulterer or maybe just plain boring?

As it turned out I could have done a lot worse. And Ralph could do a lot worse than Heidi.

Ralph said I'd changed my tune. He said he didn't think I had much time for foreigners. But she's different.

He said the only difference was that I took the trouble to get to know her. But I didn't have much choice did I?

Anyway with a little prompting from yours truly he eventually plucks up the courage to let Heidi know he's keen on her and it turns out she feel the same. Which is nice. So to cut a long story short she's not sleeping in the spare room any more.

 

* * * * *

 

Likely as not Maureen probably did report us the the immigration office because a few days later we had an unexpected visitor in a black uniform. I told him if he's come to read the meter, it's under the stairs.

He said he wasn't here to read the meter. He wanted to ask me a few questions and leave a couple of forms for me to fill in. You should have seen them. They were nigh on fifty pages each.

I said I'd probably leave that to Ralph.

He started asking me all these questions about who's living in the spare room.
I said Ralph's friend Paul sometimes stays and when I told him his last name's DeMontfort his ears pricked up on account of it sounding a bit foreign and he starts filling in one of his forms.

I told him his family are foreigners in a way which pleased him no end.

He asked if they're registered. I said I've never thought to ask.

He wanted to know how long the family have been here. I said since 1066 or thereabouts.

So he gets a bit vext and screws up his form.

Well where do you draw the line? That's what I say. A lot of the people in this street are foreigners. Mr Helmn traces his family back to the Vikings. He's had that DNA test. Mrs Roger's has got what I would definitely call a Roman nose so you never know. Then there are the Goldbergs at number 42. They came here to escape the likes of him. He didn't like that.

He asked me if we've ever knowingly employed a person who wasn't a British subject.

I mentioned Moira so he asks again. Have we ever knowingly employed a person who wasn't a British subject or a citizen of the republic of Scotland.

I said no, but he'd obviously done his research. He knew all about my stroke and how we've had twelve full time carers staying in our spare bedroom. I said not all at the same time. It's only a small room.

I told him you just can't get carers these days. Not since he sent all the foreigners back home. He didn't like that either.

Anyway it turns out that quite a few of our neighbours have been telling tales on us. Apparently there've been sightings of Heidi pushing my chair all over the place. Near the duck pond in Princes Park and in the high street coming out of the Sue Ryder Shop and in the fish mongers in Market Lane and so on.

I said our neighbours have been busy.

He said they've been acting as responsible members of the community.

I asked him if he supplied them with binoculars.

So he wants to know who Heidi is and I tell him she's Ralph's girlfriend but she's gone back to Kings Lynn and that Ralph did well to hold on to her as long as he did because he's not very experienced when it comes to matters of the heart. But then I supposed the neighbours had told him all about that.

He was getting very exasperated at this point. He said precisely what our neighbours have or haven't told him is not a matter for disclosure under the protection of privacy act.

I said what about the protection of my privacy? And Ralph's and Heidi's?

He said there were serious penalties for harbouring a foreign fugitive -

I said oh my God! Has she robbed a bank or something?

He said all unregistered foreigners are deemed to be fugitives and will meet the full force of the law.

I said I know all about that. I was in Marks and Spencer's when his armed SWAT team swooped in and arrested that poor Italian Girl. They had her pinned to the floor. They dragged her out bleeding. I heard she has learning difficulties, poor thing.

He said that was an exceptional case.

I said it's virtually a daily occurrence round here.

He said over seventy percent of the population of Stoke on Trent voted leave -

I told him I was one of them. But I didn't expect all this. All these forms. We were supposed to be getting rid of red tape. And him coming into my home asking all these questions like the bloody Gestapo. I thought there'd be a return to the kind of community where every one understood each other and got on. What kind of community is this with all my neighbours telling tales on me? I told him it's not a community I want to be part of so he can pack me off to Europe he wants.

He said I can no more move to Europe than they can come here.

I told him one of my ancestors came over with the French Argonauts in the seventeenth century. Would that help? He said I was being ridiculous.

I said what about you with your network of informers. We fought two world wars! I told him if his interrogation was over he could jolly well leave.

Apparently we haven't heard the last of it.

 

* * * * *

 

So it looks like we could be facing a raid at any moment. Only last week a team of armed soldiers in full riot gear raided old Mrs Tweedle's cottage. They smashed the door down and had her pinned to her sideboard staring into the barrels of a dozen machine guns. They were acting on a tip off from a neighbour that she was harbouring a Pomeranian. Turns out that's a small fluffy dog. There were red faces all round and Mrs Tweedle's got a new front door out of it.

If they do find Heidi, she'll be deported and we'll be prosecuted for harbouring an illegal alien. Ralph says we don't have many options.

I don’t know why they can’t just get married and have done with it.

Ralph said they’d think it was a marriage of inconvenience, but you could say the same for any marriage.

So I suggested we emigrate to Scotland. If they’d have us.

Heidi took to the idea immediately. She said in Europe, Scotland's s seen as a progressive, cosmopolitan, outward looking country. Unlike little England.

Ralph was surprised I'd suggested emigrating to Scotland because I've lived in this area all my life. He thinks I'd miss all my friends and neighbours.

I said it turns out most of my friends and neighbours are informers.

Then Ralph goes on about the bagpipes and the awful weather and the midges. And that you can only get vegetables on prescription.

Anyway, he eventuality sees sense so all three of us have packed our cases and we're catching the train to Glasgow tomorrow. If he and Heidi can be together, I don't mind spending a few bob on thermal underwear, insect repellent, vitamin C and ear plugs.

Denial

by Ian Dixon Potter

I'm tired of forever being let down. I've lost count of the number of times I've been betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. Well fuck them. I don't need people like that in my life. I just break off all contact. It's the only way to deal with the situation.

Relatives are no better. I know they say blood's thicker than water but the behaviour of some of my family … well lets' just say they're a big disappointment.

And don't get me started on public services. Public disservices would be a better term. I won't bore you with all the details but in the last couple of years I've been let down by the council's housing department, by my Doctor, by every single one of the staff at the infirmary,

by the Citizens Advice Bureau, by the Legal Aid Service and now the Benefits Office are threatening to stop my disability living allowance. I'm sure they're all in on it together. There's obviously a file on me going around and somehow I've ended up with a black mark against my name.

Probably because I always stand up for my rights. For what's owed to me.

They don't like people who stand up for themselves. They expect us to just roll over and take it. I should put in a freedom of information request. Find out exactly what they're saying about me - and who they're sharing it with. I bet they're breaching the data protection act.

Which is a serious matter. Heads might roll - with any luck.

I'm not going to talk about my condition. It's a private matter, but I've been eligible for disability benefit for the last eighteen years so what the hell's changed? I've not made a miracle recovery! They're saying there's no reason I can't work for a living. I can think of several good reasons.

I've paid my taxes. In the past. I had a good job in computing until...well...my problem started. So it's not unreasonable to expect something back.

What I've come to realise is you can't rely on anyone when the chips are down.

I'm constantly disappointed by just how cold and calculating most people are. They're always thinking about the bottom line - which for most people is basically money. I don't care about money which is probably why I don't have any. Only seven credit cards all maxed out to their limits. And a stack of final demands. I'm thinking of declaring myself bankrupt. That way I won't have to pay any of it back. There's not much chance of that anyway.

The trouble is I'm just too open and honest for my own good. I was just saying to Alan, I'm too giving. With most people it's just take take take. I'm not always thinking about what I can get out of a situation. It's people that come first as far as I'm concerned.

To give you an example, I'm the only one in our family who takes the trouble to visit Marjorie. She used to live next door to us in Bradley Road for as long as I can remember. Her own family don't visit from one month to the next. As far as they're concerned she can just rot away in Mountview Towers. Alan said I'm her only visitor. At least he appreciates what I'm doing. Of course I couldn't visit at all during lock-down but since things started to reopen they've set up this garden room with perspex screens so visitors can safely meet residents. Only one at a time mind.

Now they're saying there might be another lock down. I hope not for Marjorie's sake as much as anything. She's starting to get a bit confused. She was saying her husband hadn't paid her a visit.

I hadn't the heart to remind her he died about thirty years ago.

I was up there again his morning. Alan wheeled her in as per usual. He's the only one of the staff I have any time for. We always have a chat. He's a good laugh, Alan. Mind you I don't know how he can work at Mountview. The place gives me the willies. Apparently it was originally built as a lunatic asylum. One of the biggest in the country. It's a massive old grey stone building. All towers and chimneys. Probably Victorian or something. When you approach from the car park it sort of looms up through the trees. It reminds me of a scarier version of that hotel in The Shining.

When Marjorie first arrived she had a room on the ground floor. She could walk around the gardens without any assistance and she'd come and go as much as she pleased. When she became confined to a wheelchair they moved her up to the first floor. She still gets to go out in the gardens but only with help from the staff.

Alan says if she deteriorates further she'll be moved up to the second floor. They're all permanently bedridden up there. They never get out even though some of them still have their marbles. Of course they'll eventually decline further and most of them end up little more than vegetables. That's when they're moved up to the top floor. They don't tend to stay there for long.

Alan told me the staff have this phrase when it comes to moving residents up a floor.

They say says they're moving 'closer to Heaven'.

 

* * * * *

 

My sister Denise says Alan's my 'new best friend'. Which is nonsense. She's just taking the piss. I only ever see him when I visit Marjorie. At least Alan takes an interest.. Unlike some people he's not quick to dismiss everything I say.

These days most of my real friends are on-line. I'm in various information sharing groups. On Facebook. I've been researching the Illuminati and its links to The Bilderburg Group and The Prieuré de Sion. The Internet's invaluable for that sort of thing. I've also been investigating crop circles and UFO sightings.

The UFO research group is particularly active at the moment. There's been a massive response to a photo I posted last week. It's gone viral. I came out of Citizens Advice last Thursday and spotted an anomalous object floating in the sky. Roughly triangular in form. It looked to be made of some kind of burnished metallic material. I'd say it was floating about fifty feet in the air. Above the Sue Ryder shop. It wasn’t so much gliding as – hovering. Then it shot off, at great speed. I took a photo. Documentary evidence!

Over the years there's been countless reports of craft of this same basic design. It conforms to the type seen in the Barnoldswick incident. Although in that case there were several. All flying in formation. The craft’s movements suggest some sort of anti-gravity technology.

I had a massive argument with Darren and Denise. They said it looks like a kite. No way was that a kite. They're always making out I believe in all kinds of ..well..what they insulting call 'hocus pocus'. Which is rich coming from Denise. She goes to Church every Sunday and she actually believes the communion wine is miraculously transformed into the blood of Christ! And she says I believe in nonsense! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Still, there are more things in heaven and earth ...and.. what have you.

I always say it's important to keep an open mind. Darren said 'some so called open minds should be closed down for repairs' but he's just afraid of the truth. The idea that we're not alone in the universe. He shuts his mind to anything remotely supernatural. It doesn't matter whether it's ghosts or telepathy or the healing power of crystals or astrology or anything beyond his mundane everyday life.

Actually I prefer to say preternatural. Meaning as yet unexplained. To my mind it's utterly foolish to deny the existence of the preternatural realm. You only have to go down the local library. If there was nothing in it would their 'mind body spirit' section be so big? It takes up half the ground floor and they have a whole bookcase devoted to UFOs.

No way was that a kite! This is a clear example of cognitive dissonance. Their minds won’t accept the evidence of their eyes and so they rationalise away the experience into something commonplace.

It’s like when the Wright brothers were testing the very first aeroplane. It was on the edge of a town. Plenty of people saw what was happening but they thought nothing of it because they couldn't come to terms with something so far beyond their experience. They just blocked it out of their minds. Crop circles are another classic example. They've been appearing for centuries but people just can't accept them so they pretend they're not there.

Some experts think they're the imprints of extra-terrestrial craft. Or they could be some kind of coded message, perhaps not even intended for us. Either way, they’re certainly created by forces entirely beyond our understanding.

I have my own theory. I think it’s very significant that these circles always seem to be positioned at the intersection of lay lines. That's got to be more than coincidence.

Of course some people were completely taken in by the infamous ‘Doug and Dave conspiracy'. They supposedly trampled down the corn, using planks strapped to their boots, a length of string and a stick. The truth is it’d be completely impossible for human beings to create such perfect geometrical patterns.

Most people don't realise that these so called 'farmers', Doug and Dave, were actually working for MI5. Part of a deliberate government plot to cover-up the true extra-terrestrial nature of the crop circle phenomenon. It’s a well-known fact – in crop circle… circles.

 

* * * * *

 

I was up at Mountview again yesterday. The boss, Angela made a big fuss when I high-fived Alan. She gave us both a right ticking off. Alan said it was an instinctive reaction and he didn't stop to think. He wasn't blaming me or anything.

I've no time for all this pandemic nonsense. In my opinion it's nothing but a gigantic hoax. I call it the shamdemic. I don't know anyone who's had it and they've not had a single case at Mountview. Alan says they're proud of the fact. I said they've no need to be, because it doesn't exist.

For example, Darren went down the Infirmary to get his plaster cast removed and he said it was utterly deserted. He asked one of nurses 'where were all the Covid cases' and she claimed they were at the University Hospital but that's rubbish because Denise went there with her feet and that was empty as well.

It's the pharmaceutical companies who're really behind it. They stand to make a fortune with these vaccines. And who are their main investors? Governments of course. They're all in cahoots. And look at all the Tory party cronies who've benefited from big contracts for face masks and test and trace and all that. Billions of public money down the drain.

Is it any wonder they've had to stop my benefit? It's always the little people who suffer. Of course this test and trace makes it seem like there's loads of cases but that's exactly what they want you to think. In reality these tracers were being paid good money for sitting at home with absolutely nothing to do. Is it any wonder their phones weren't ringing? Because there weren't any real cases!

If there was a real risk of contagion would that Dominic Cummings have driven all the way up to Durham at the height of the pandemic? Of course he wouldn't. He knew what was really going on. I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't one of them who cooked it up in the first place.

I mean all these lock downs. You know what they're really for? It's obvious when you think about it. It's to cover up the economic hit caused by Brexit. Let's face it that would've been a major embarrassment for this government but it's all hidden now. Don't get me wrong. I voted for Brexit. I wasn't at all keen on all them seventy million Turks coming over here. That's what clinched it for me. That's the last thing this country needs.

I hear it was a Turk behind the first so called vaccine. I'm certainly not having any of that in my blood. They says it's full of little tracking devices. Nano things which tell GCHQ where everybody is and what they're up to.

To be honest I'd rather not wear a face mask but they don't let you on a bus without one. Or into Mountview for that matter. It can't be healthy, breathing in your own carbon dioxide all day long. Mind you it helps if you keep your nose sticking out the top. And that way your glasses don't steam up.

No, its nothing but a massive conspiracy. The CIA came up with the idea in the first place. So they could embarrass China and seize all its foreign assets to pay for the lock-downs.

That's what's coming. Mark my words. If they can fake the moon landing they can fake a pandemic. They were afraid China was hot on their heels as the world's richest nation and they had to put a stop to it. Look at how they're blaming China for suppressing what they supposedly knew about this so called virus.

That's all about showing how their political system is inferior to ours because they have no freedom of speech. That may well be true but I don't see why the rest of us have to suffer just to prove a point. I'm not making any of this up. It's all out there if you know where to look. It's all on the internet.

One thing I've learned over the years is that everything happens for a reason. Absolutely nothing happens by chance. For example, they're saying this so called virus came from a food market in Wuhan. It only takes a moment's reflection to realise just how ridiculous that sounds.

Some bat sneezes in a Chinese market and the whole world goes into lock-down! Come on! Pull the other one!

I've spoken to dozens of people about this shamdemic and not a single one of them knows anyone who's actually died. It's about looking at all the available evidence and exercising your judgement instead of automatically believing what the government say or what your read in the papers.

They're all in on it together. Of course it's great for the media. They're lapping it up.

It gives them something to talk about now Brexit's done and dusted. Most people are like sheep. They just blindly accept all the lies and misinformation. They don't stop to question the so called 'conventional wisdom'. Or they're afraid to stick their heads above the parapet. They don't want to be seen as cranks and nutcases for believing something out of the ordinary. But a few of us have really looked into it. We've seen through the smokescreen of half truths and distortions, We've discovered the real truth of the matter and we're not afraid to tell anyone who'll listen.

Mind you, as often as not it falls on deaf ears. It's got to the stage where if anyone gets the slightest sniffle or cough, people automatically assume it's got to be Covid. I went down with something myself a couple of week back and of course the woman behind the counter at Boots said it might well be Covid. I was tired for a couple of days and had a bit of a cough and a funny taste in my mouth. It was nothing.

 

* * * * *

 

I've created a Facebook group to spread the real truth about this shamdemic. It's only been online for a month and we've already got three hundred members. I was looking forwards to telling Alan all about it. But Angela said he's off sick.

She mentioned there'd been a couple of deaths on the top floor. Apparently It's unusual to get two in one week. Out of the twenty four residents on the top floor, eighteen have gone down with something. She wanted them all moved to the University Hospital but they won't have them because they're supposedly rushed off their feet.

She was was going on about how fifteen thousand nurses have gone back to Europe in the last five years because according to Angela they didn't feel welcome here any more. I know exactly why she was telling me all this. She's cottoned on to the fact I was a keen Brexiteer. Well good riddance to them. That's what I say. Why can't we have British nurses? She claims there aren't enough of them to fill all the vacancies and so according to her, thousands were dying from delayed operations simply because they don't have the staff. And from Covid – so she says. Not that I believe that for one moment.

Every single of of these so called Covid deaths can be put down to something else. You look closely and everyone of them had an underlying condition. It was their condition that killed them, not Covid.

Those two top floorers who died were probably on their way out anyway and I bet the rest of them just have a dose of the flu. When she described the symptoms it sounds like it's exactly the same as what I had and I was over it in a couple of days. Whoever heard of a disease which is fatal for some people and is something and nothing for others? No, I can't think of one either.

 

* * * * *

 

I couldn't get to see Marjorie this morning. They'd locked the main gate and wouldn't let me in. While I was there Angela came to the gate to let an ambulance through. She told me the whole place is in quarantine now. There's only three left alive on the top floor and they're hanging on by a thread. It's spread to the other floors as well. Everyone's saying it's Covid. Well they would wouldn't they. Apparently Alan's on a respirator.

While we were talking, I noticed three body bags being carried into the ambulance.

Angela mentioned how it's disheartening for the other residents to see all the bodies being carried out. Normally they try to be discrete about it but there's so many deaths now, they don't have much choice.

 

* * * * *

 

Marjorie passed away last Tuesday. I was the only one to took the trouble to visit her and I've not even been invited to the funeral. Which is a pity. I like a good funeral. I'm sure she'd have wanted me there. I spoke to her son on the phone, He said it was close family only. I said it's a pity none of these close family took the trouble to visit while she was still alive. He didn't like that.

In all, forty two of the residents died along with six of the staff. Alan's made a full recovery though. And they've lifted the quarantine up at Mountview. Well the place is virtually empty. I thought I'd go and say hello to Alan. It turns out he wasn't too happy to see me. He's being blamed for the outbreak because he was the first person to fall ill and Angela puts it down to our high five.

Alan told her how I'd been ill a few days beforehand and how I'd been 'wilfully careless' on account of me being a Covid denier. You can't deny something that doesn't exist!

He made some sarcy comment about me being true to my word, when I described myself as a giving person. That's someone else to cross off my Christmas card list.

IAGO

by Ian Dixon Potter

(Inspired by 'Othello' by William Shakespeare)

 

 

They say black lives matter. Well, maybe they do. But don't white lives matter as well? And this white life has been blighted by the favouritism that's followed that damned campaign.

I expected Colonel Othello to make me his lieutenant. I know my value, I'm equal to the task; that promotion was mine by rights. It was my due. I worked for it. I deserved it. I expected it.

But Othello, already himself elevated well beyond his worth and station, elevates yet another of his very same hue. Is that a coincidence? I think not. He's pandered to the very same agenda that gained him his own underserved promotion. And, in conclusion, says he, "I have already found my officer."

And who is he? An unfledged rookie, Cassius! Who's never commanded a squadron in the field, nor understands how to lead or inspire. He's full of theory without practice, in all of his soldiership. Well, there's no remedy. Preferment now goes by colour and ethnicity, even sometimes gender and not, as of old, by merit and experience or where each second in command stood heir to the first.

No wonder things are falling apart. You'll soon see what happens when those who rise to the top are far from the best for the task. Oh, we're all meant to look favourably on the likes of Othello and Cassius. But in our private thoughts we still doubt their worth, especially when they're elevated to high office or some other prominence. We ask ourselves, did they really get there on merit - or merely to satisfy some quota, some political agenda, some desire in those who promote them, to be seen to be without prejudice themselves?

When in this climate, someone like me achieves standing in any field of endeavour, I know he must be worthy indeed! So judge for yourselves whether Othello deserves my loyalty.

I'll follow him and serve my time beneath him.

We can't all be masters, but nor can all masters be truly followed. You all know of many a dutiful and arse-kissing fool - working like a mule for nothing but scraps from his master's table, for all the thanks that he gets. Well, that's not my way.

There are others who put their own interests first and whilst giving the impression of loyalty, just line their own pockets. Well now, with my fidelity and good service unrewarded, I'll follow this latter course.

And perhaps there's another way to take revenge on Othello. For I've observed he's secretly courting General Brabant's fair daughter Desdemona. And - think of this - referring again to our innermost thoughts, there are still some who view the likes of Othello, with their raw physicality, their powerful visceral presence, to be somehow closer to the beast. It was Brabant who promoted Othello, but would he be best pleased to imagine his sweet, delicate daughter entwined with the brute? I don't think so. The regiment's one thing, family quite another.

So I'll warn Brabant to look to his daughter. I'll tell him that a black ram is topping his white ewe; that his fair daughter and lascivious Othello are making the beast with two backs.

Let's see what happens.

 

* * * * *

 

Well, as I thought, Brabant was quite in the dark about what was going on between his daughter and Othello, and wasn't best pleased to hear of it. The next day I delighted in informing Othello that Brabant had somehow uncovered the truth and was very much aggrieved, fully intending to come to the barracks and take issue with him. I'd certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.

The irony is that Brabant brought them together in the first place! Othello would visit Brabant at home and young Desdemona would overhear their conversations about past military campaigns.

Othello would boast of his success in battles and sieges, of hair-breadth escapes, and imminent death and once, of being taken by the enemy.

Young Desdemona devoured his tales of daring and when he spoke of his difficult upbringing by way of contrast with his later success, she was often moved to tears. In short she was mightily impressed by Othello.

And her adoration - and no doubt her delicate beauty - in turn drew Othello to her.

 

* * * * *

 

When Brabant arrived at the barracks, all hell broke out. He accused Othello of being unworthy of his daughter, of seducing her and of leading her astray.

By my actions, I had hoped that Othello would suffer the lasting enmity of Brabant and the rest of his clan. Well, the outcome was different - and yet still might work in my favour.

You see, Othello persuaded Brabant that his intentions were honourable and that they were, in time, to be married. Brabant wasn't exactly overjoyed by this prospect but he was, for the moment, placated. But there was still the matter of Desdemona's dissembling.

She had skilfully kept their courtship secret from Brabant, who warned Othello that she'd deceived her own father and may yet in time deceive her own husband!

That parting remark planted within me the seed of a plan for an even sweeter revenge.

You see Desdemona is Othello's one weakness. He's devoted to her and yet, I sense, deep down fears himself unworthy of her, being a good few years older and not of such fair countenance. Nor of such elevated birth, being of humble origins himself. This young and proud beauty on his arm must bolster his ego. It reflected well on him to have made such a desirable catch. All the ingredients were there for a profound jealousy, should another man lead her astray.

For the green eyed monster is nothing but a reflection of ego.

If a woman leaves a man for another, then he fears that other is somehow a better man than himself, especially in the conjugal department. And that hurts...

And a competitive man like Othello, an alpha male by any standards, would feel that more deeply than most. For Othello always wants to be top dog. He's a sporting man; plays hard and won't countenance second place in any tournament or contest, even when just played for laughs.

I've also observed the sin of jealousy to be stronger amongst Othello's own kind. Where he's from, if a wife betrays her husband she might well be stoned to her death. And there's no such punishment for the man who leads her astray. Or if a young girl rejects a proposal of marriage she risks being disfigured, so no other will desire her again, or, at the very least, risks dishonouring her family and being cast out onto the street. And the womenfolk are all covered up, from head to toe - so only their husbands can look at them.

But are these symptoms of jealously, of possessiveness or just of control? Are their women just chattels, possessions like any other? But the men often flaunt their gilded luxuries, if they have them. Their Italian sports cars, their expensive Swiss watches, their gold and their diamonds. And yet they cover up their women. Well, whatever's behind it, his countrymen do seem to react more violently to a woman's rejection.

So if I can engineer a reason for Othello to question Desdomona's love, then all things considered, that would be sweet revenge indeed. There are many possibilities.

I now hate Othello, but he holds me in good stead, which will make him easy to manipulate - if I tread carefully. And if I can somehow implicate Cassius as well. Ah! Then I have a two-pronged revenge.

Cassius is, after all, a handsome man, and many years Othello's junior. He has that smoothness of manner that might be suspected of leading women astray.

Let me see now. How can it be done?

Othello has a free and open nature. He thinks men honest if they seem to be. So, if I'm subtle, I think I can tenderly lead him by the nose...

I could start by asking Othello - as if in jest - if he thinks Cassius a little too familiar with Desdemona.

Yes, that's the first step. So, I have the beginnings of a plan.

I'm going to enjoy this.

 

* * * * *

 

Cassius and I were due to stand guard, but not until ten o'clock last night. There was an hour to kill, so I suggested a swift half in the local just outside the barrack gates. There, I told him, a couple of old friends would join us to toast the health of Colonel Othello.

Cassius was reluctant at first. Well, he has no head for drink. I gently taunted him, calling him a kill-joy, an old maid, a goody-two-shoes. He could always drink shandy or bitter lemon or some other women's drink! Or something with a little umbrella and a cherry on a stick.

At length he gave in. Ah - he's easily led. My friends were prepared, and once there I created an excuse to depart; a well-timed text of feigned importance, requiring my immediate attention. So I left Cassius in their clutches. They only had to fasten one spiked drink upon him, and he'd soon be as full of quarrel and offence as the General's Jack Russell. Then, according to my instruction, one of them insulted Othello in no uncertain terms.

Cassius leapt to Othello's defence, the insult was repeated and the argument led to a scuffle.

To cut a long story short, Cassius wasn't there when Othello arrived to inspect the watch, finding me all alone at the barrack gates. I muttered some feeble excuses on Cassius' behalf, but at length he turned up, all dishevelled, drunk and waving his pistol. Needless to say, Othello wasn't impressed, saying Cassius had forgotten all sense of place and duty. He'd unlaced his reputation and gone down very severely in Othello's opinion! He wasn't getting much sense out of Cassius, so he asked me to explain the situation. "I'd rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than betray my friend and comrade in arms," I said.

Othello applauded my loyalty to Cassius but felt it misplaced at this time. And Cassius was demoted on the spot. He has a quick temper, Colonel Othello. Cassius was very downbeat. Not so much for his demotion, but for the loss of the one thing he valued above all: his reputation.

"Reputation," I told him, "is seldom to be trusted. Often achieved without merit, and lost without reason." Anyway, there were ways he could regain Othello's respect, and get his rank back as well.

He couldn't see how, so I suggested he appeal to Desdemona. "She has a kind heart. She'll listen. She'll understand and she'll speak to Othello on your behalf. And we all know she has him wrapped around her little finger."

Of course Cassius could see the merit in my advice and was very grateful for my wisdom and kindness. I said it was the least I could do and furthermore, I would let him know when Othello was away from her side, so he could speak to her alone.

Am I a villain to give Cassius advice that will repair his good fortune? Well, the worst sins are often committed under the cloak of innocence.

So then, when Desdemona comes to plead on Cassius' behalf, I'll subtly poison Othello's thoughts by implying - in jest - she's standing up for Cassius, because she's taken a fancy to him.

And Othello knows well there's many a true word spoken in jest.

This way I'll sow the seeds of doubt in his mind and, in time, Desdemona's compassion will be the downfall of all three of them.

 

* * * * *

 

I timed it carefully.

Knowing Desdemona to be alone, although only for a while, because Othello and I were on the way to their quarters, I told Cassius this was the moment.

He had just enough time to ask for Desdemona's help in reinstating his position when I messaged him, letting him know Othello was soon to arrive and he should make his escape by the back door.

Sadly, my message came a moment too late. Because Othello caught a brief glimpse of Cassius from behind, as he hastily departed.

"Was that Cassius just then?" he asked me.

"Oh I don't think so," I answered, "what would he be doing here? And if it was Cassius, why would he rush out in such an unseemly fashion?"

"Indeed why?" said Othello, his suspicions aroused.

 

* * * *

 

When later Othello told me of Desdemona's entreaty on Cassius' behalf, I feigned surprise. And then, as an aside, I asked if Cassius knew of their courtship. He told me he did and that Cassius was often their go-between. My veiled reaction, pursed lips and dark frown, were enough to provoke further questions.

I gave the impression I had something of importance to say but was keeping silent and that there was a deep struggle within me.

He demanded to know my thoughts on the matter. At length, I said, "Cassius seems a loyal and honest man. And if he seems that way, who am I to doubt it? Aren't all men more or less what they seem?"

He wasn't convinced. He could tell I held back. He had to drag it out of me - or so he thought. I ruefully admitted some vague suspicions, but said it was in my nature to be suspicious, to see the worst in any man - and he really mustn't pay any attention. "No, no, it's better I keep my thoughts to myself," I said finally. "Besides, I would never speak ill of a man behind his back, especially if to do so would damage that thing which has more value than wealth." By which, of course, I meant reputation.

"In any case," I told him, "you should beware of jealousy. There's nothing worse than loving a woman and at the same time doubting her."

"I couldn't possibly be jealous of Desdemona," he told me, "and I would never doubt her. No, not in a thousand years." But then he paused a moment, "Unless, of course," he said, at length, "there was cast iron proof she'd betrayed me. And then there would be no need of jealously, because there can only be jealously when there's love. And if she betrayed me, there'd be no more love. So, no jealousy." So he said.

I told him his words had persuaded me that nothing I could say would ever provoke in him jealous feelings and therefore I could be frank with him and reveal to him my thoughts, although there was probably no substance to my suspicions. Probably none whatsoever...

"But," I mused, "it wouldn't hurt to keep a close eye on Desdemona and maybe - if she's even more vehement in her support of Cassius, perhaps start to ask why? What lies behind it? Well, perhaps nothing. Sometimes we should take things at face value. Although, where women are concerned, nothing's ever quite as it seems. They can be great dissemblers."

By way of example I pointed out. "Look at the way she deceived her father. Brabant's nothing if not a man of the world. Not a man so easily deceived, I shouldn't think... And deceived by one so young, so seemingly innocent."

Othello was downcast.

"I hope it's nothing I've said..." I ventured, and my tone was about the right mix of concern and innocence.

"No," he rasped, holding up his hand. "There's no reason for me to doubt Desdemona. No reason at all." And he turned away, "None whatsoever."

But he asked me to keep my eyes open and report to him - anything of significance. Anything remotely suggestive.

I said I most certainly would. "But perhaps," I added, "there was something to be said in not reinstating Cassius just yet. Then you can at least judge Desdemona's reaction - and make of it what you will. It will probably be nothing to her." I told him that would be my guess.

 

* * * * *

 

Of course, seeing Cassius not reinstated, Desdemona raised the matter again and again with Othello, pleading his case with all her eloquence and serving only to increase his suspicions.

So I played my game one step at a time, and the most vital ingredient was a certain strawberry patterned face-mask belonging to Desdemona.

You see, Desdemona is uncommonly cautious and with this virus still around in the city, she won't venture out without a face-mask.

So Othello, in the early stages of their romance, had given her a rather unusual example. It was white, with a pattern of strawberries. It amused them both that something of such prosaic necessity should be so delicately embroidered. And Desdemona treasured this thing of little consequence, because it was Othello's very first gift to her.

Knowing all this, I looked out for the face-mask whenever I was in their quarters. Eventually, I spotted it hanging to dry in their laundry, and left alone for a moment, I hastily unpegged it and made off with it. I have it with me now. It is a pretty thing, to be sure.

My intention is to hide it in Cassius' quarters. Hide it well, so that Cassius himself would not readily come upon it. But not so well that it couldn't be found - in a very thorough search.

 

* * * * *

 

Even before I planted my 'evidence' - my revenge was already half complete. Othello hadn't slept a wink since I 'reluctantly' gave voice to my suspicions.

Oh, he was in a right old state, wishing he'd never suspected her at all. Better, he thought, to be happy in his blessed ignorance.

All his triumphs and glories, his rank and his accolades - all - were as nothing in the light of this jealousy. Of course, he cursed me, even though he still thought me honourable.

He now tasked me to prove my suspicions beyond all doubt, otherwise if unfounded, I'd be to blame for his wretched state of mind.

I said, I wished I'd kept my thoughts to myself, but reminded him that he'd dragged them out of me. And now I, through my foolish honesty, was so deeply involved, I felt I had to mention two matters which, I said, had transpired only the night before.

"After an evening of revelry," I told him, "I crashed down in Cassius' quarters, but I was woken in the night by him thrashing around and talking in his sleep. Much of it was quite unintelligible - but I managed to catch a few distinct words."

Here I feigned a difficult recollection. "It was something like, 'sweet Desdemona, let's be careful - and - hide our passion.' Not that this proves anything, of course," I hastened to add. "It could just be some - some unrequited fantasy, which informed his dreams last night. But -" and here I frowned, as if straining my memory, "there was one other strange thing. In the morning, when I gathered my belongings to leave... One discarded sock had rolled under his bed and, on retrieving it, I found a face-mask down there. It was white - but embroidered with a pattern of strawberries. I'm not completely sure - but does not Desdemona herself have just such a face-mask? Or something a little smiliar? Perhaps my memory's deceiving me..."

Well, a dark cloud passed over Othello's face at that moment. "Yes," he said, "it was my very first present to Desdemona. A handmade thing, from the craft market in town. There'll be few others like it. Maybe none." His voice, I thought, had a faintly hollow, broken note, when he whispered at length, "Proof indeed."

I advised him not to jump to conclusions. "Maybe it's just rather similar - not the self-same mask. Perhaps it's different in some important detail. I'm sure that'll turn out to be the case." And here, I held up my hand as if to show a total even-handed diligance, "But - to satisfy your concerns - I suggest you have Cassius' quarters well searched. Perhaps under the pretext of looking for drugs," I said.

We had a search of the whole barracks last year for much the same reason. Well, now he really was in a state. He said something about, "Arise black vengeance from the depths of hell," and how his love was, "in an instant, transformed to hate."

"But it's all circumstantial," I said. "There might well be some innocent explanation for the mask - and for the dream... and for the repeated entreaties on Cassius' behalf." I paused here a moment, allowing the faintest note of doubt to enter my voice, "And for his hasty departure from their quarters... if that indeed was Cassius."

He wasn't persuaded.

I offered to ask Cassius directly about Desdemona, in confidence, but using my phone to secretly record our conversation. Needless to say, Othello agreed with this plan. And was grateful to me for my loyalty and resourcefulness.

 

* * * * *

 

Now, Cassius had a dalliance with a local girl, Bianca. She's a striking young woman, desired by many of the squaddies, but she only has eyes for Cassius. Truth is, she cared for him a good deal more than he cared for her.

So I enquired about their relations before setting my phone to record. Cassius spoke freely of how she doted on him, poor thing, but he had no thoughts of marrying her. Though she thinks that he will, mind. Not because he's made any such promise, but because she flatters herself.

He mentioned how she follows him wherever he goes, and hangs about his neck, and cries on his shoulder. He said it was all too much for him. Of course, he uttered her name, 'Bianca', and some other incompatible details - but I edited these out of the recording I played back to Othello.

He was right, I am indeed resourceful. And determined.

Of course, Othello, on hearing all this, thought Cassius was speaking of Desdeoma. Well, that's what I told him. And to make matters worse, just after I played the recording, Othello received news of the search.

They'd found the strawberry face-mask in Cassius' quarters. Well, what a surprise! Othello didn't hang around, but went straight off in a blind rage to confront Desdemona.

To be honest, I feared for her life.

 

* * * * *

 

As it turns out my fears were well justified.

By all accounts, Othello stormed in and much shouting was heard from their quarters.

Voices were raised, both Othello's and Desdemona's - although her shouts were suddenly - stifled.

There followed an ominous silence and at length - a single gun shot. It seems Othello struck Desdemona so hard she expired on the spot and then he took his own life, using his service revolver...

That was more than I expected. Far more.

So - is revenge sweet?

Well... it's not sour.

For once a man becomes your enemy, all thoughts of empathy and compassion dissolve, taking with them all notions of pity and fellow feeling.

One moment you'll go to great lengths to help a friend or a even a stranger, out of the goodness of your heart.

The next, if, for whatever reason, he deserves your enmity, you'll happily see all manner of disaster befall him. And even be instrumental yourself in his downfall.

And so it was with Othello.

So, yes. This revenge is indeed - sweet.

The Triumph of Evil

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

In order to marry my Mother, herself a commoner, my Father renounced his entitlement to the throne. Were it not for this, I would now be King of Sweden - and none of the events which I'm about to recount would ever have happened.

My life has been devoted to public service in one form or another and there was a particular childhood incident which influenced me greatly. My very earliest memories are of family Christmases. Every year my father invited several poor families from our village to join us at home. When I asked him why these strangers were in our house he explained to me that Christmas is a time for giving and those people were a good deal less fortunate than ourselves. This impressed me greatly and in time, became the foundation for my own life in public service.

I wished to serve my country by joining the army but during a brief military career as a cavalry officer it became obvious that my poor health would preclude any further involvement in active service.

My Uncle, Prince Karl was at the time, president of the Swedish Red Cross. Five years ago, in the spring of 1943 he who suggested that I take on the role as vice president. In this capacity I became involved in the plan to rescue prisoners from the infamous Nazi concentration camps.

It was incumbent on me to draw up plans demonstrating how the Red Cross could be of service after the war. However, I felt that we could do useful work inside Nazi controlled territory, even whilst the war was still raging.

By the middle of 1944 it seemed almost certain that Germany was going to lose the war and British intelligence reports suggested that the Nazi’s were intending to exterminate all remaining prisoners in their concentration camps. They were planning to destroy all evidence of their atrocities before the allied armies reached the camps. I concluded that the Swedish Red Cross just might have a role to play in rescuing at least some of those unfortunate people.

It was well known that the head of the Gestapo and SS and Hitler's second in command, Heinrich Himmler had a particular love of Sweden. There was therefore a possibility that I might I might be able to capitalise on this emotional attachment. To contact Himmler I would have to go through the German foreign minister Von Ribbentrop. This was in the February of 1945.

I was particularly shocked when I first saw the ruins of Berlin. There were long queues outside food shops, barricades in the streets and huge plies of rubble where buildings used to stand. Almost every building had lost its roof. People were reduced to living in cellars and faced heavy bombing raids every night. This was the Berlin I saw when I met Von Ribbentrop in what was left of the foreign ministry.

This meeting took place at the time the Swedish government was actively considering entering the war on the side of the allies. Your Mr Churchill had made certain overtures intended to persuade the Swedish government to abandon its neutrality. No decision had been made but I was able to give Von Ribbentrop the impression that our discussions might have some bearing on the matter. I suggested that any cooperation would undoubtedly create amongst the Swedish people a more favourable impression of the Third Reich.

Von Ribbentrop was aware that if Sweden were to abandon its neutrality, that would be a disaster for Germany. I recall he suggested that would also be a disaster for Sweden. According to Von Ribberntrop, if Germany were to lose the war then Russian bombers would be over Stockholm in days and the Bolsheviks would undoubtedly execute all the members of the Royal Family, myself included. He had this notion that the governments of all Anglo Saxon countries including Sweden, should unite to combat the Bolshevik menace.

Von Ribbentrop believed that the Germans, the Swedes, the British and the Americans share the same values, born of the same history. Values, as he put it, moulded by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. And in a sense he was correct, in contrast at least to the history of the Russians.

You can draw a line through Europe dividing east from west and this is the very same line which divided the eastern and western Roman Empires. Those nations to the east of that fifteen hundred year old line are prone to despotism in one form or another. Their past lies in the oppression and tyranny of the Byzantines. As a direct consequence of their history, the Russian people know of no other way.

Von Ribbentrop asked me which contemporary human being had contributed more to humanity than anyone else. He was of of course referring to Herr Hitler whom he sincerely believed to be at heart a good man. For many Germans there could be no greater good than the elevation of ones own race, ones own nation.

Hitler's every waking hour was devoted to the survival and supremacy of his own people. Germany suffered great ignominy after their defeat in nineteen eighteen, their national pride and economy were in tatters but according to Von Ribbentrop, Hitler had single handedly restored the prestige of the German race.

I wonder if there's anything to be said for this definition of a good man. A man who puts his own people above all else? For example, as a direct consequence of my new role in Palestine I've already made many enemies, particularly amongst Zionists who've suggested that in my dealings with the Nazi's I was only interested in rescuing Scandinavian prisoners and not even Scandinavian Jews.

In truth I would never favour one race above another. Suffering is suffering wherever you find it. Surely it is little more than petty parochialism to exhibit more concern for the suffering of people of your own race or nationality. I've always taken the view that in any endeavour we should avoid elevating our national identity above our other identities.

Must I define myself as Swedish above all? If anything I think of myself as European first and foremost. After all, the western European nations have a common heritage and culture which goes back thousands of years.

So on the contrary, I wanted to rescue prisoners of all types but my way of starting the process was to propose that we deal firstly with Scandinavian prisoners. I felt that this was likely to meet with less resistance from Himmler.

The first step was to persuade Himmler to allow a Swedish Red Cross convoy to enter German held territory and rescue all of the Swedish, Danish and Norwegian prisoners and bring them to a place of safety in neutral territory.

I recognised that the expedition I was proposing would be exposed to great danger. There could easily have been Red Cross casualties. And even my own expeditions into the heart of war torn Germany to meet with Himmler and Von Ribbentrop were not without risk.

It was necessary to strike up a good working relationship with Himmler. In order to achieve anything from these negotiations I was forced into a position where I had to treat him with kid gloves. I had to get him on my side. There was nothing to be gained in antagonising him by labouring on the iniquities of the Third Reich. I didn’t publicly denounce Nazism and its methods because I knew that would spoil all chances of achieving my purpose. In a manner of speaking I had to deal with the devil.

My first meeting with Himmler himself was in his office in a large hospital seventy five kilometres north of Berlin. My first impression was of a harmless provincial schoolmaster. A small, frankly unimpressive man. At first he wasn't at all responsive to my proposal. He became very defensive when I mentioned the concentration camps. He said I'd been misinformed. That the suffering of prisoners was most often a direct consequence of allied bombing campaigns. I suggested that whatever the cause of the suffering, the ideal solution would be to relieve the overcrowding by selectively releasing some of the prisoners. I argued that quite apart from anything else, these prisoners were a burden on the third Reich, taking resources away from their war effort.

Eventually he accepted that the old and sick could be allowed to return to Norway but was less happy about releasing Swedish born wives of German citizens and their children. He feared that in Sweden, the German children would be brought up to hate their own country and be spat upon by their playmates.

Himmler was particularly eager for his cooperation to be acknowledged. Should Germany loose the war he knew there would be recriminations and hoped to avoid being made a scapegoat. I told him that it was certain that all of his actions would be taken into account.

So my meeting with Himmler paved the way for the Red Cross convoy made up of thirty six coaches and twelve lorries along with field kitchens, ambulances and mobile workshops.

The convoy was transported by boat from Skorner in Sweden to Odense in Denmark heading first to Castle Friedrichruh in Germany, home of Prince and Princess Otto Von Bismarck.

The convoy then made its way to Neuengamme near Hamburg and I became the very first representative of a neutral humanitarian organisation to set foot in a concentration camp. The prisoners we hoped to rescue were transported to Neuengamme from concentration camps situated further to the east and to the south; Auschwitz, Ravensbrueck, Belsen, Dachau and others.

Neuengamme was an appalling place. Overcrowded, insanitary and inhumane and labouring under an exceedingly harsh disciplinary regime.

I never cease to wonder at the cruelty of men once they are a given a uniform and absolute authority over others. Especially those who are deemed to be their prisoners or perhaps those we define as the enemy or think of as somehow beyond the pale. Not that a uniform is a pre-requisite for cruelty towards those we believe to be different from ourselves. And I don't just mean those who plan or carry out these atrocities. I'm thinking also of all those ordinary men and women in Germany who were simply indifferent to the suffering of the Jews and other minorities.

Some Germans claim that they didn't know what was happening, but in every town and village they saw Jewish people being herded onto trains like cattle, and knowledge of their ultimate fate was far more than just a matter of rumour and conjecture.

I believe that it is important not to confine our recrimination to the ruthless and self serving men at the top. Consider how the Nazi party were able to identify and persecute “dissident” elements within a population despite only having a handful of Gestapo officers in each German city. Ordinary citizens were encouraged by the authorities to spy on each other and to report any behaviour which didn’t conform to their narrow standards.

A particularly sad case came to my attention recently. A housewife in Düsseldorf reported her neighbour to the local Gestapo. She described this neighbour as being unconventional in her habits, only keeping the company of members of her own sex and showing little enthusiasm for returning the Nazi salute. This neighbour was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and was finally murdered in Auschwitz. Thousands of German citizens reported their neighbours to the authorities in this way knowing full well that their actions would almost certainly lead to dire consequences.

It is most often ordinary people who are responsible for individual acts of violence and cruelty. There is this stereotype of the strong, Machiavellian, evil leader, but evil is so often the consequence of people simply following orders. Evil is essentially commonplace, even thoughtless. In reality it is seldom the self reflecting evil of for example Shakespeare's Richard the third although I wonder if that form of evil exists at all outside the realm of fiction.

I'm often asked how an otherwise civilised and cultured people could commit such atrocities. There are those who think they've identified something unique in the German character. Perhaps a predisposition to obey, to feel most at home when there is someone who has the power of command above them.

I'm not so sure. There are people in many nations who become uncertain and confused without authority above them. Due to some sort of mental indolence they don't want to form their own opinions or to act in accordance with them. They wants to swim with the stream, act with the masses. If there is no one to direct them they are swept into a vortex. Everything goes to pieces.

No, I think there is the potential for good and evil in all of us of whatever race or nationality and certain political climates can emphasise one or the other. For example, the German people were manipulated by an extremely persuasive propaganda machine which for many years had painted the Jewish people as little more than vermin. The newspapers in particular, were instrumental in creating this climate of hatred, both in their editorials and in their very selective printing of stories intended to depict the Jews in a negative light.

So, getting back to Neuengamme, I found myself having to deal with the notorious Ober Sturmbannführer Pauli, a man who carried out his duties as a commandant with great enthusiasm. He was the kind of brute who could only ever have risen through the ranks in an iniquitous regime such as Nazi Germany. He was almost certainly a bully at school, the sort who probably also beats his wife. Had he been born into a more civilised culture, he would still have been a nasty piece of work, likely a petty criminal, doubtless ending up in prison himself.

The character of any people, any nation or indeed any corporation is reflected in the quality of those we allow to rise to the top, which of course doesn't say a great deal for the German people nor for certain other societies even today ruled over by bullies and posturing narcissists.

Pauli was actively resisting my efforts to improve conditions at Neuengamme and despite Himmler’s assurances, progress of the rescue mission was far from smooth. Unfortunately the chain of command had somewhat deteriorated as a result of Germany’s precarious military situation.

One of Himmler’s aides, Kaltenbrunner was deliberately trying to sabotage the mission. He reported the terms of the agreement directly to Hitler who was determined that neutral representatives should not be allowed to see inside the concentration camps. I was unprepared to tolerate my plans being upset by Kaltenbrunner and I refused to discuss these matters with anyone other than Himmler. I had to return to Berlin to resume negotiations, once again in his office in the sanatorium. Himmler was no longer in Hitler's..what is that English expression...ah yes, his good books. Hitler had described Himmler as a traitor and rescinded the orders to allow prisoners to be moved.

Clearly The Fuhrer wasn't persuaded by the fact that that the prisoners to be released were Scandinavian Aryans. He was concerned that there were Scandinavian Jews amongst them and he wouldn't countenance the release of even a single Jew.

During our meetings Himmler himself spoke often about cleansing Europe of the Jewish race. He even claimed that the Jews had brought it on their own heads.

You have to remember the state of the German economy before Hitler came to power. Poverty, unemployment, a dire shortage of housing. The Führer promised to make Germany great again and for many Germans that's exactly what he'd done. Adolf Hitler identified the Jews as the cancer in their midst. He claimed to have uncovered the 'international Jewish conspiracy' and so he acted to eradicate Jews. But they were merely a scapegoat. Any other sizeable immigrant group would have served the same purpose. Frankly I doubt if the Nazi hierarchy really believed in this conspiracy but they played on the fears of ordinary Germans magnified by the anti-Semitic press barons.

There was a popular notion that Jews would only help each other. That should anyone make the mistake of elevating a Jew to a position of responsibility, then you would find that others would follow. That they act only to line their own pockets and those of other Jews. And not at all for the good of Germany. But don't we all do that to a certain extent? There would have been no problem if the Jews were favouring their own kind in their own country. But of course three years ago the Jews didn't have a country.

It's interesting to recall that Hitler himself actively promoted the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Prior to the implementation of the final solution, he anticipated that Jews expelled from Germany would indeed settle in Palestine.

Many Germans believed that the Jews have been in a constant state of conflict with other races since the time of Abraham, precisely because they believe themselves to be the chosen people of God, a superior race. After all, it's very difficult to convert to Judaism. With a few rare exceptions, a Jew is born a Jew. However historically speaking there are in fact very many examples of Jewish minorities working alongside and even assimilating to a degree with other peoples.

I've always admired the British policy of liberal integration. Great Britain welcomes with open arms peoples from all around the world just long as they integrate and at least in part, adopt British values. That seems to me to be a humane and eminently sensible approach. Although even in Great Britain, there are unscrupulous and despicable politicians who will seek to make scapegoats of immigrants by blaming them for problems which are not of their making.

I was eventually able to persuade Himmler to allow the convoy to leave Neuengamme against the Führer's direct orders. In return he wanted to play a part in bringing a peaceful resolution to the war in the west. He wanted me to describe to Eisenhower his cooperation in the matter of the convoy. Himmler hoped that he and Eisenhower could discuss terms for a German surrender on the Western front. We now know that Himmler’s terms were unacceptable to the Allies. It was Admiral Doenitz, not Himmler who surrendered to Eisenhower and Himmler committed suicide after being arrested by British troops.

As for the convoy, the difficult negotiations paid off handsomely and over thirty thousand prisoners were rescued from the concentration camps, including a very significant number of Jews. Although I think it would be vain to regard this as a personal triumph in the light of dreadful fate of the millions we were unable to rescue.

I became acquainted with many of the liberated prisoners and I still remain in contact with several of them. For example only this morning I received a letter from Pavlina, a young lady in her early twenties who was liberated from Auschwitz. She lived for a while in a hostel in Stockholm but just as soon as the war was over she returned to her village, Vranov, not far from Prague, with the intention of being re-united with her family. She came from a large family. Her widowed mother, three brothers and two sisters along with many aunts and uncles and cousins. She told me that she was related to half of the population of Vranov, but when she arrived in the village she found not a single one of her relatives. She's been waiting there for nearly three years now, hoping in vain that someone would return. I made some enquiries on her behalf and it seems that every other member of her family was sent to the gas chambers. Out of her entire extended family, Pavlina is the only survivor.

It's terribly sad but her case is far from unique. Imagine you are liberated from Auschwitz or Belsen. You return to your old town in Poland or Austria or Hungary, in Germany or Czechoslovakia. You find a another family occupying your old house. You look into the faces of your former neighbours and see the murderers of your family. You discover that you are still hated. Your neighbours regard you as having returned from the dead. At best, your return was a painful surprise to them. How can you remain there? How can you remain in the place where you were once happy amongst family and friends.

Many people have deliberated long and hard on the lessons we can learn from the crimes of the Third Reich. The 18th century Conservative politician Edmund Burke famously said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing. We must ask ourselves where were the good men of Germany a few short years ago?

Perhaps there were very few men - or women in Germany who were not fundamentally anti-Semitic. But anti-Semitism alone cannot be sufficient explanation for the death camps. The cruelties were also meted out against the mentally ill, the crippled, against gypsies, homosexuals, communists and Slavs, indeed against anyone who didn’t uphold the values of the Third Reich. If a person or a society exhibits intolerance towards one group they generally exhibit intolerance towards many.

I suggested earlier that the German people are far from unique in having a strong predilection for order and compliance with authority but wherever we find it, this tendency certainly breeds intolerance towards anyone who is in any way different, non conformist, - non compliant.

Take for example an incident in which a troop of German conscripts were asked to take part in a firing squad. Their victims were Jewish women and children who had attempted to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The German commander told each member of the firing squad that there would be no repercussions if they preferred not to take part. These men were not professional soldiers. They were not members of the Nazi party. They were bakers and plumbers, car mechanics and shopkeepers. Not one of these men declined to take part. Apparently they didn’t want to stand out so instead they murdered those women and children. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to think for themselves.

Three years after the defeat of the Nazis, anti-Semitism still persists in Germany as in some other parts of Europe. Only yesterday I read a newspaper report about Germans passing by the Jewish community centre in Stuttgart. They were heard to shout out loud ‘It’s a pity they didn’t burn them all’. The majority of Germans feel no sense of guilt or shame. They only regret that they lost the war. In the same newspaper, the Bishop of Vienna was reported as stating publicly that religious anti-Semitism is entirely justified and that the only solution to the Jewish problem is for Jews to convert to Christianity.

There’s hardly a country in Europe where the Jews haven’t suffered persecution and many other nations colluded enthusiastically with the Nazis. And not just in Europe. The Palestinian religious leader, The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was allied to the Nazi's. It was he who suggested the idea of the final solution to Hitler. I’ve seen letters from The Grand Mufti to Eichmann, to Himmler and to Von Ribbentrop and also to the Prime Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania all advocating the extermination of Jews.

Ever since seeking refuge in Germany in 1941 he actively campaigned for the elimination of all Jews and personally ensured the murder of thousands of Jewish children who would have certainly been saved had it not been for his intervention.

When Hitler knew his days were numbered he asked the Grand Mufti to set up a Pan-Islamic Empire and to perpetuate the final solution by other means. Indeed, documents revealing this conspiracy formed part of the prosecutions at the Nuremberg trials.

Of course it's important to remember that the Jews are not the only ones who’ve suffered genocide. More indigenous people were massacred in South America by the Spanish armed only with crude muskets and bayonets than the Nazi’s were able to exterminate using their industrialised killing machine. The Spanish felt justified in their actions because they thought of their victims as unchristian savages.

Once again religion is at the root of a great evil. Unreasonable beliefs so often lead to unreasonable actions. The Nazi cult of Aryan supremacy was very much akin to a religion, and very much bound up with the occult. This was an unreasonable belief by any standards.

Of course any difference can be used as an excuse for persecution. It doesn't have to be religious but for many people, their religious identity takes precedence over their other identities. It's more fundamental than national or even racial identity. And those who don't share ones religious identity are often seen as somehow 'beyond the pale'. To an outsider, these religious distinctions are nothing short of ridiculous. Ludicrous, puerile myths. And yet they inevitably lead to so much conflict and suffering.

People from all nations are so often happy to do the bidding of authority, both religious and secular, because it relieves them of the need to judge for themselves what is right from what is wrong, but religious authority is by far the most difficult kind of authority to question. If the Quran, the Bible or the Torah are interpreted by wicked and self serving men what hope is there for their followers?

I'm often asked if my experiences in Nazi Germany have allowed me to form any general opinions about human nature. Sadly it would seem that in Germany and perhaps elsewhere, only a small minority possess that independence of thought which is the bulwark against manipulation by others. If only we were confident in our own individual thought processes even when they lead us into a position which is in opposition to the majority. Only then can we be intellectually self reliant and not afraid to condemn those who follow a hollow creed.

Furthermore, if we have the imagination to understand what it's like to be another person we should be able to empathise with their plight. Acts of evil so often have at their root a lack of empathy. We can do terrible things to other people if we cannot empathise with them. Usually because we've been persuaded that they are in some way different from ourselves..

There is a very bleak argument that a form of xenophobia is innate to all human beings, indeed to all organisms. Darwin demonstrated that the development of separate species through sexual selection depends on a clear identification of those who are part of one’s own group as distinct from those who are outsiders, specifically those with whom we are discouraged from procreating.

Xenophobia may also be also a consequence of our evolution as creatures trying desperately to survive in harsh and dangerous environments at a time when those who are different from ourselves may indeed have constituted a genuine threat. Some therefore suggest that it is entirely natural to hate and fear the other.

In the school yard children are merciless in persecuting and bullying those who are different in some way. But perhaps hatred of the other doesn’t blossom naturally at all; perhaps it is the result of learning from the example set by parents. Or by priests, imams and rabbis.

Speaking as a Swedish Anglophile, I look upon England as a beacon of civility almost unique in the world today. Your values of tolerance and fair play and your preparedness to defend the underdog are well known across the globe. And yet, a large proportion of the British public leave school at the age of fifteen. They are by any standards woefully under educated. They are probably unable to understand the political and social issues of our day in anything other than the most simplistic terms. These people are easily led by the more disreputable organs of the press and by unscrupulous politicians like your Mr Mosley.

If there were choices to make about the direction of society I'm sure that you wouldn't think of consulting the man on the Clapham omnibus. What would be his views or example on policies regarding independence for your colonies, immigration from your colonies, the appropriate policies for the treatment of certain minorities? Not views which you would want to pay any heed I'm perfectly sure. In some ways he might be as motivated by prejudice and bigotry as were the Nazis.

Whether whether this propensity towards intolerance is innate or is in fact learned behaviour I’m sure that we must agree that as reasonable human beings we should strive at all times to rise above it.

A new chapter in my life has begun. Tomorrow I fly to Jerusalem to broker a peace between the Arabs and the Jews. It's my firm intention to find a solution to this hitherto intractable problem in Palestine. So wish me luck. I rather think I'll need it.

 

On 17th September 1948 Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Security Council Mediator in Palestine was assassinated in West Jerusalem. His limousine was held up by men wearing the uniform of the Zionist militia, one of whom fired at point blank range into the car.

 

The Swedish Ambassador remarked that it is a savage irony that a man responsible for the liberation of so many Jews from the Nazi concentration camps should be murdered by Jewish extremists.

DNA

by Ian Dixon Potter

 

It's all very strange but It looks as if I'm not who I thought I was. I really don't know what to make of it.

You see, as a birthday present, my partner, Alison bought me a DNA test from a company called myancestry.com. I returned their swabs in the post and this morning I received the results.

It turns out I'm 49% Scandinavian and only 15% English which is really odd because my brother Mark had the same test last year and he's about 90% English. I remember we joked at the time how his ancestry was really boring but apparently most English people are the same.

They say if your maternal grandmother was born in England the chances are your ancestors were here for millennia. You'd have thought that the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans and the rest, would have all left their mark but no, apparently not.

Perhaps they didn't come here in big enough numbers or maybe their genes were diluted over the centuries. So your average English DNA is more or less the same as the ancient Britons who'd lived here for thousands of years when the Romans turned up.

It turns out we're all the much the same as the folk who built Stonehenge and Avebury circle. So we shouldn't have been surprised about about Mark's DNA. When you think about it, both sides of my family have lived in this same neck of the woods for centuries.

Dad's brother Uncle Ralph is interested in genealogy and he's traced the family back to the mid fourteenth century. The oldest ancestor he could find lived in a village less than ten miles from here and it's probably much the same on Mum's side. I suppose you could say we're rooted. Or to put it another way, we're a family of stick in the muds.

 

* * * * *

 

Mark suggested my Scandinavian blood might be the result of a liaison between one of our ancestors and a bloke with a horned helmet during a club eighteen thirty 'rape and pillage' tour of the north of England about twelve hundred years ago. But that wouldn't make sense.

I checked with myancestry.com and apparently to have forty nine percent Scandinavian DNA, that liaison with a Viking must have been with our mum! Which is a bit of a shock. Frankly butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. She's the last person you'd suspect of a dalliance, but now I come to think of it I don't much resemble my dad or anyone else in his family and now I'm beginning to understand why.

This is a really big deal. It's going to take a while for the all implications to fully sink in. To come to terms with the fact that my Dad isn't my Dad. Or at least not my biological dad. It's difficult to get my head round.

It's probably too early to say but I don't think it'll make us any less close. Not that we're particularly close anyway. To be honest, Dad's not an easy person to love.

Mind you at least I'm still talking to him, unlike Mark.

I've always been 'Daddy's little girl'. It helps that he never had high expectations for me. I know he was surprised when I went to uni. I studied politics and history and I'm doing my doctorate now.

But Mark's always been a big disappointment to Dad, which is really unfair.

You see Dad's an ultra competitive, macho, sporting type of man and Mark just isn't like that at all. They're chalk and cheese. Mark's sensitive, creative, and intellectual and Dad's just the opposite in every department. From what I've heard he was a terrible bully at school.

Which is hardly surprising when you see how he treats mum. Nothing physical mind. He just...controls her just like he used to control us when we lived at home. I don't know how Mum puts up with it.

Dad makes all the important decisions and he definitely treats women like second class citizens. It's about time he realised he's living in the 21st century. I told him that once. He said he'd barely come to terms with the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

 

* * * * *

 

Of course I'm not going to tell Dad or Mum about this DNA thing. Mark won't say anything either. He's actually quite jealous. He said he wouldn't mind discovering that he wasn't Dad's son - which is sad really.

I must admit there's a part of me that actually quite pleased, but that's nothing to do with Dad. You see in the last five years I've come to despise this country and everything it stands for. I'm actually ashamed to be British. I know that sounds extreme but I just can't help it.

I never used to feel this way. I used to be quite patriotic. I'd wave my little union flag watching the last night of the proms. I was out in the street with the rest of the town when the Queen visited a few years back.

I thought there was a lot to be proud of. Like how this country was the first parliamentary democracy and the first abolish slavery, and votes for women, and the welfare state and the NHS and so on. I was proud that so many positive things about the modern world started right here in England.

I was proud to share the same nationality as William Wilberforce and Mary Wollstonecraft, as Newton and Darwin as Lennon and Bowie, as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes.

But now I think about it I've absolutely no right to take pride in the achievements of others. I'll never win a Nobel Prize or create a new vaccine. I didn't write Hamlet or Wuthering Heights. I've personally done nothing for the rights of women or anyone else for that matter. Just because I share the same nationality as those heroes, it's no credit to me.

No more than I should feel ashamed to belong to the same nationality as Doctor Shipman or Jimmy Saville.

And yet I do feel ashamed to belong to the same nationality as Nigel Farage. The truth is, I'm ashamed to belong to the same species. But that's because the likes of Saville and Shipman are aberrations. They're not representative of being British.

But the 2016 referendum proved that a very high proportion of us are just like Farage. In other words, small minded bigots. Full of fear and hatred for anyone who's in any way different to themselves. For a lot of British people, Farage is the best thing since sliced bread but I find his views utterly repugnant.

Now, I know everyone who voted leave wasn't as detestable as Farage.

Others were just too foolish to realise they were being lied to. I'm sure a lot of them regret voting leave, now we can see all the consequences but there's no hope for the enthusiastic Brexiteers, those who even now, think they did the right thing.

If you get into conversation with any of them, it's not long before you realise you're talking to a racist. You only have to scratch the surface.

Oh I know they pretend it was all about sovereignty but that's a load of bollocks.

They had no idea which rules came from the EU. Or how few there really were or why we needed the rules in the first place so we could be part of the single market and all that.

And I've no patience with those who complain they were lied to.

It was blindingly obvious the only one's who'd really benefit from Brexit are the filthy rich press barons and greedy billionaires. It stands to reason they didn't want the EU scrutinising their ill gotten gains just as it was as plain as the nose on your face that the rest of us would lose out big time. In all sorts of ways.

So we were lied to. There's no question about that. And enough idiots believed the lies to skew the result. So which ever way you look at it, the referendum was completely illegitimate.

A nation is its people and it turns out that more than half of us are either racists or fools. Or at best, misguided reactionaries hiding their fear of change behind the delusion of 'traditional values'. Let's face it, tradition is nothing more than the illusion of permanence and for many, a desire to return to 1950's attitudes to foreigners, women and gays.

So how can I possibly be proud to be British? And now that I find out that I'm not – well, I'm absolutely delighted. It turns out I don't share the same DNA as Nigel Farage or Iain Ducan Smith or Jacob Rees Mogg or Aaron Banks or Dominic Raab. That's got to be something to celebrate!

You'll notice I don't mention Boris. But he was never a committed Brexiteer. For him it was just his passport to power. He just wanted to be PM whatever the cost to the nation. It didn't matter to him that he trashed our economy, our international reputation and the prospects of millions in the process. And yet people still voted for him!

So no, I'm not proud to be British any more. I'm fucking ashamed.

 

* * * *

 

Myancestry dot com provided the names and nationalities of my ten closest relatives on their database and most of them turn out to be Danish, with names like Rasmussen and Sorenson and such like.

I'm obviously very curious to find out who my real father was but I can't remember any Danish people in Ainswick when I was growing up or even now for that matter.

I thought about contacting these relatives but they're mostly third to fifth cousins which means at best we share the same great-great grandparents. Still there's no harm in trying. So I've sent them messages through myancestry.com asking if they know if any of their relatives spent time in the north of England in the 1990s.

While I'm waiting to hear back I decided to have word with Mum's sister, Aunty Jessica. She and Mum have always been close so if there were any Danes in Mother's circle twenty five years ago she might know about it. Mind you, I had to be careful how I approached the subject.

I told a little white lie. I said there's a Danish girl on my course and she wants to know if there are any other Danes in the area. Jess mentioned a local family with a harlequin great Dane so that wasn't much help.

I asked if there'd ever been any Scandinavians in Ainswick to her knowledge. She said she didn't know of any but there was something about her expression which made me think she knows more than she's letting on.

* * * * *

 

The more I think about it I really like the idea of being Danish. Even before I discovered my ancestry, I thought of the Scandinavian countries as sort of...ideal societies.

Socially and politically speaking. Societies other nations could aspire to. And there've been precious few of those at any time in history.

One thing I've learned in my studies is how history is very little more than a never ending cycle of domination, exploitation or extermination of one group of human beings by another. The modern Scandinavian counties are one of the very few bright spots.

Politicians endlessly argue about the best ways to organise society. Well they don't need to look any further than Denmark or Sweden. For example, year after year the Danish are rated the happiest people in the world? Despite the awful weather. The reasons are obvious when you think about it.

In Denmark the disparity between rich and poor is much smaller than just about anywhere else. In England, CEO's earn about four hundred times more than unskilled workers. Four hundred times! Can you believe it? Is it any wonder people feel exploited?

In Denmark the difference in less than four times more. That means they're a hundred times more equal than we are! That's one hell of a difference!

There's this saying in Denmark, 'very few have too much, and even fewer have too little'. So for a start, it's hardly surprising there's so little crime. An next to no corruption as well.

I think more than anything, happiness comes from being in control of your own life and it looks like Danish people feel more empowered than most other nationalities because their government actually trusts them.

Unlike here where they treat us like shit and deceive us at every opportunity.

Let's face it, this country's run by a bunch of spivs and shysters. And they're only in power because of Brexit. At a time of national emergency, when we need a government of integrity and foresight we're saddled with the least capable and most dishonest government we've had in my lifetime. By a considerable margin. Is it any wonder they made such a pig's ear of the pandemic. I wouldn't trust this crew to run a corner shop never mind a nation at a time of crisis.

 

* * * * *

 

Five of the Danish third cousins wrote back, which was nice of them. But only one had any useful information. It's a bit vague, but a Frida Sorenson said she once heard about a distant relative setting up a Danish design shop somewhere in England. So that might be something to go on.

There aren't many people I can ask about this for fear of it getting back to Dad. God knows how he'd react if he knew the truth. I had a word with Mark to see if he has any ideas. He reminded me that when we were growing up there were a lot Scandinavian things in the house. Things like vases and crockery and small items of furniture.

They still have some of that stuff so I went round to Mum and Dad's house and when they weren't looking I took some photos and then spent hours googling images of 1990's Danish magazine racks and plates and lamps and so on. The only match I could find was the lamp shade in the sitting room which is apparently a Danish design classic.

I managed to get the phone number of the importer and it turns out the nearest shop they supply is in Manchester. It's called Levende which is Danish for 'living'.

I Googled 'Levende' and it's owed by a bloke called Gudmund Sorenson, so the same surname name as Frida which is interesting.

Mum studied at Manchester Uni and she often goes back there to meet friends or even just to go shopping. It's only forty five minutes on the train to Manchester Piccadilly and we don't have many interesting shops here in Ainswick. So I'm off to Manchester on Saturday. I don't mind admitting I'm actually quite excited.

 

* * * * *

 

Since getting the DNA results I've been thinking a lot about identity. How we tend to define other people in opposition to ourselves.

My friend Helen uses a wheelchair and she complains how able bodied people always define her by her disability. They're unable to see past it, even when they get to know her quite well. But if she's with other wheelchair users she's just Helen.

Anyway she doesn't like to define herself as disabled because actually she's able to do most of the things everyone else can but it just tales a bit more effort and determination. So if anything, her real defining features are her determination and her positive attitude. And her sense of humour and her stoicism.

It's the same when it comes to sexuality. People who identify themselves as straight see me as gay first and foremost. To them I'm 'gay Imogen'. Which is frankly annoying.

They have the luxury of being seen as individuals because being straight is supposedly the norm. The default. Like being able bodied, cisgender and white.

But I don't actually think of myself as gay. I've had boyfriends, it's just that on balance I have a preference for women at the moment. Or at least one particular woman.

To my mind bisexual and pansexual are meaningless labels. They imply I could potentially have a relationship with someone who's male or female or maybe somewhere in-between but then couldn't we all?

Of course some dunderheads would say 'oh no I couldn't possibility do that' but they're just lying to themselves really. If you've got an imagination and a modicum of self knowledge, you know very well it just depends on the circumstances. On who you happen to fall in love with.

Of course we have no control over how others define us but the worst thing is imposing an identity on ourselves.

I realise some people gain comfort from labels, especially if they're in a minority. But as soon as you attach a label to yourself, it becomes a straitjacket, limiting your horizons, defining yourself within narrow boundaries and in opposition to the rest of society.

But how come being British is so important to people? That's not exactly a minority is it? Especially if you live here.

Let's face it nations are no more than artificial constructs, the arbitrary conjunction of history and geography. Just because someone's British I don't feel any special affinity towards them. Quite the opposite nowadays. The truth is, I get on better with like minded foreigners than I do with a high proportion of my own countrymen. About 52 percent of them to be precise.

When the whole Brexit debate started, I realised my identity as European was far more important to me than my identity as British. Never mind all the practical advantages from being in the EU. Then my European identity was stolen from me by all the morons and bigots who voted for Brexit. But now it turns out there might be a way to get my European identity back. Which is the best news I've had all year.

 

* * * * *

 

On Saturday I got the train to Manchester and and met this Gudmund there in his shop. I called first to make sure he'd be there on the pretext of looking for a Danish lampshade.

He's a tall distinguished grey haired man of about fifty. He has these frameless glasses and speaks with an accent. But the first thing I noticed is how he's definitely got my eyes and my cheekbones. Or to be more precise, I've got his. I'm not sure about his other features because we were both wearing face masks at the time.

I pretended to be interested in the things in his shop. It was a mixture of vintage and modern. Everything was Danish of course. All very nice but on the expensive side.

Then I start asking him about himself. It turns out he's been in Manchester since his mid twenties and he's originally from somewhere called Odense.

Then I mentioned how I thought my Mum used to come into his shop and I mentioned her name. My God you should have seen his reaction. He went as white as a sheet and his manner changed completely. He became all very nervous and fidgety.

I'm sure there were tears in his eyes which he tried to cover up by pretending to blow his nose. Which is difficult when you're wearing a face mask.

He obviously knew exactly who I was so I decided on the spot to tell him the truth.

I told him about the DNA test and about Frida Sorenson and how I think he might be my father.

He said I'd put him in a difficult position and that I'd better speak to my mother about it. So to cut a long story short, that's what I've decided to do.

 

* * * * *

 

When I called Mum, it turned out she already knew I'd been speaking to Gudmund and Jessica. We arranged that I'd go round for lunch when Dad was out on the golf course.

Mark was invited as well.

Mum was obviously embarrassed but she told us how she and Dad had been trying to have a baby for about four years, ever since they got married. They were having no luck and Dad wasn't at all keen on fertility treatment. He wouldn't even get himself tested.

Mum thinks he was afraid they'd find something wrong with this sperm and that would somehow reflect on his virility. On his precious manhood. Knowing Dad, that doesn't surprise me.

Mum was tested and as far as they could tell there was no reason she couldn't conceive. She suggested IVF but Dad said it would put too much strain on their marriage. Although he claimed otherwise, Mum thinks he wasn't that bothered about having kids in the first place. He's rather be out on the golf course.

Anyway, it got to the point where Mum suggested using a sperm bank and Dad would have none of it. They had a few rows and Dad just put his foot down and refused to talk about it.

Eventually Mum decided to go ahead without telling Dad but instead of using a sperm bank she approached this Gudmund. She'd known him from her time in Manchester and would always drop into his shop when she went back. He'd been quite a close friend at one point and before she met Dad she went out with him for a while.

Anyway Mum said she chose him as a sperm donor because he has a lot of good qualities. He's smart and kind and has a good sense of humour - in a Danish sort of way.

Mum's kept him updated about me over the years and apparently he's taken quite an interest. I'm hoping we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other now. I'm really looking forwards to getting to know him.

Then there was another big revelation. Mum told us that Mark was also the result of artificial insemination but this time from a local man in her bridge circle. She would have asked Gudmund but he got married not long after I was born so it was out of the question.

Of course Mark wanted to know all about his biological Dad.

He's a drama teacher at the local comprehensive and now Mark wants to meet him as well.

In a way we're both quite pleased about the way things have turned out but there's no question, out of the two of us, I've hit the jackpot with a Danish father. I've applied to the Danish embassy and Gudmund is prepared to make a written statement to the effect that he's my biological father. That's is all I need to become a Danish citizen and effectually rejoin the EU.

I'm not actually thinking of going to live there just yet, but it's nice to have the option. No, for the moment at least, my life's here. My partner's here, my friends and family are here, my academic life's here. So I'll just have to stay in this nasty little country for now.

Let's face it there plenty of people who have to live in places they've come to despise. Government's that act against everything they've ever believed in. Like anyone who values freedom of speech but happens to be born in China or North Korea. Or values the rule of law but has the misfortune to live in a criminal state like Russia or Somalia. Or values decency and honesty and had to live under Trump for four years.

So I'm far from alone and I'll just have to put up, but I certainly won't shut up. But at least I can call myself European again. That really is something to celebrate. So I've only one thing to say to Brexiteers.

Up yours!

Marlowe's Ghost

by Ian Dixon Potter

(Inspired by 'The Dead Shepherd by Ian Dixon Potter & Robert Pope)

 

The ghost entered my dreams again last night.

I dreamt I'd risen from my bed to wind up the the old clock in the parlour. After setting the pendulum swinging, I glanced at the hour and a ghastly human face seemed for a moment superimposed over the the brass face of the clock, silently mouthing some unfathomable words.

It was the very same ghost which has haunted me for these last two score years and three.

It was Marlowe's ghost. Christopher Marlowe. Or Kit to his friends.

When I first arrived in London, he was the toast of the town. Back then it was enough to walk in the shadow he cast. Fifteen hundred and ninety. A fledgling actor, or so I thought myself.

Nothing but an old leather bag across my back and a handful of poor scribblings in my pocket. I sought and soon discovered – employment with the Admiral’s Men at the Shoreditch playhouse.

I was mostly board-treading for the smaller roles at that time. One has to inveigle oneself into the kinship of these play-men by degrees. The world of the theatre’s a close-knit community. But it acquainted me with several men who were at that time of great influence.

One of them being the actor, Edward Alleyn - or Ned, as he was to us. Born and weaned amongst the playhouse crowd. Born for such roles at Kit’s Tamburlaine and Faustus; Tom Kyd’s Hieronimo; my own Mercutio.

He played them all, mostly for Kit’s company, but later for the troupe I eventually joined. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But in fifteen ninety I was one of Philip Henslowe’s lackeys, with the Admiral’s troupe.

At the time we’d often repair to the Unicorn on Bishopsgate. Sitting between a harlot’s den and a bear-pit, it had a certain colour and life about it, a wild, coarse reputation.

It was there that Ned Alleyn first acquainted me with Kit on the very night Henslowe decided to give Kyd's ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ another run and Ned was to don Hieronimo’s garb once more. A quarter of a century ago, though it seems like the blink of an eye.

How can I describe Kit Marlowe? Small, and thin, intense and undeniably attractive. He had the whole world at his feet, but his swagger couldn't conceal a certain air of vulnerability.

He and Tom Kyd shared Bishopsgate lodgings just two streets away from my own squalid den. Tom Kyd, was a dour waspish fellow, too old for his years with the gloomy aspect of a clerical scholar. These two were the men to know if I wished to learn the playwrights’ profession.

I'd been hankering to meet Kit Marlowe for weeks. Ever since I saw ‘Tamburlaine’. It was a complete break from those old plays, with all their formulaic lines, all that posturing. Kit escaped the old need to slavishly rhyme each line with the next. But still retained rhythm and balance. There was a certain - beat . I thought that clever. Five drum-beats to each sentence. Dum-de-dum, de dum, de dum, de dum.

I remember Kit explaining how he hit upon this five-beat form. A dramatic sentence - ‘the Heroic Line’ - must have harmony. And therefore it must have a sense of symmetry. So then - for symmetry we must have an odd number of beats… Rather than an even number - which would introduce duality, thereby - splitting ‘the Heroic Line’. And, well - three beats is too brief a sentence; seven beats too cumbersome, losing any train of thought. Five is the optimum.

But there was much more than this to 'Tamburlaine'. There was power and guts, even a certain cruelty to it. Pigs bladders bursting with blood all over the stage. Kings dethroned and cast into squalid prisons.

Some branded it lewd and crude and The Master of the Revels was known to dislike its whiff of the Old Faith. But he confused anything which wasn't achingly Protestant with the Old Faith. Tamburlaine was an account of a different faith, from a time when men knew there was such a thing.

I certainly didn’t see any heresy in it. It's a pity we lived – and still live, in an age where accusations of heresy can be made so readily. I sometimes think that all faiths are more than anything a means to control men, and keep them in fear. If you brand your sworn enemy a heretic - you can justify any degree of barbarism.

The trouble was - the public conflated the author with the character. In their eyes, Kit was ‘Christopher Tamburlaine, The Heathen’ and he knew very well, his very notoriety swelled the audience numbers.

There was a magic to Tamburlaine. Audacity - intensity. The audience gasped and grinned - even as they squirmed. Kit's lines conjured all the powers of Heaven and Earth and made them speak to every-man.

His next work was seen to be even more godless. Doctor Faustus, the sorcerer, who played the Black Arts to raise Satan and all his armies from the gates of Hell, to satiate the earthly pleasures of the flesh.

At the time I lacked Kit's focus. I had too many notions which were ill-disciplined and incomplete. I'd made some vague notes for a play about the sixth Henry. That first night we met, Kit offered to take a look at it and we soon repaired to my rooms although he had, shall we say, another agenda. Well it's difficult to believe but I was also young and fresh faced in those days. But it was far more than that. There was a meeting of minds. Never before or since have I known anyone whose philosophy was so closely matched to my own.

We both endeavoured in our different ways to strip away the distorting and tinted lenses which filter our perceptions. The lenses of convention and ritual, of dogma and precedent, of class, nationality and race and even of language itself.

For language more than anything can compromise our understanding. A limited vocabulary can only serve to reduce the world, to lump together things which belong apart or to divide things which are really indivisible.

Why do you think I felt the need to invent so many new words or to find new uses for old ones? But our very desire to name and to categorise can itself be reductive. After all a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

Every time we open our mouths, our words are but a compromise, a crude oversimplification of the true complexity of our thoughts. But if we can approach things indirectly through metaphor and allegory in works of poetry and poetic prose, then we have a means of illuminating the truth of the world, of exposing its entire majesty.

But we weren't the only ones who explored these realms of philosophy. To think the unthinkable. Kit wanted to introduce me to some other like minded friends. At first he didn't name names but he told me that the gatherings were known as 'the School of Night'.

The first meeting I attended took place at the home of Sir Walter Raleigh no less.

Raleigh himself presided at the head of a table laden with fine goblets and strewn with charts and scrolls. There were both terrestrial and celestial globes, a magnificent brass astrolabe and other mysterious philosophical tools including an particularly fine example of Occam's razor with a carved ivory handle.

Also present that night was Kit's noble patron, the handsome Thomas Walsingham, cousin to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. At this time Sir Francis was still the most powerful man in the land but he was known to be ailing. There was already a certain rumour about Court that Lord Burghley’s son, the hunchbacked Sir Robert Cecil - would soon step into Walsingham's shoes. Cecil was hardly ever seen in public. A secretive behind-the-scenes man. But already, he pulled many strings.

Raleigh was suspicious of me at first. He preferred to be consulted before newcomers were introduced to their society - especially as I hadn't been told of their ‘Good Service’ to the crown.

That night I learnt that Raleigh and Kit and Thomas Walsingham had all been despatched on various foreign escapades by Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in the person of Sir Francis. They had spied upon those English Catholics who’d recently flown to the Continent. And learnt of fledgling plots by the French and the Spaniards.

It was a dangerous game for a few gold sovereigns and once assigned to the Service, they could never be free of it. So if Sir Francis died, Cecil would become Kit's employer and whilst Sir Francis employed the Black Arts through necessity, Cecil would do so with pleasure.

The School of Night's particular guest of honour that evening was Giodarno Bruno, metaphysician, natural philosopher and heretic. He'd been smuggled into London amidst great secrecy.

It was Senor Bruno’s intention to explain his doctrine of 'pantheism’. The doctrine that God is not a separate entity, ruling the Universe from his ‘Throne in Heaven’. But rather that God is what he called 'The Conscious Universe'.

After all consciousness is the highest form of complexity and what could be more complex than the whole universe - an intricate and infinitely connected system in which each part has some influence on every other part?

Morality for Bruno was no more than a man-made quality, the Universe being indifferent to our lives; to our sufferings and joys; our hopes and our fears. We are no more than cogs in a mighty, unfeeling machine. Or ants in the dust. Furthermore, for Bruno, Christ was no more than a moral philosopher very much akin to the stoic school.

A few short years after that meeting it came as no surprise when I heard that Senor Bruno had been hung upside down naked in a square in Rome then burnt at the stake.

But his ideas weren't the only excitement that evening. Before Senor Bruno had finished his presentation, two constables arrived at the door. And an official bearing the Royal Seal. I recall darting about like a headless chicken. What did they want? Were they raiding the house? Would they arrest us all?

Raleigh counselled calm and Senor Bruno was taken to the bed-chamber and hidden in a priest-hole behind a great tapestry. The rest of us gave the appearance of a merry evening, careless with the wine… Not that Kit needed any play-acting for that.

It turned out there was to be no search. They'd merely brought a summons for Thomas Walsingham to return to court because his cousin, Sir Francis had died that very evening. It was the end of an era and his passing was very shortly to spell great danger for Kit.

Kit was a surprising choice for an agent of the Service. Not exactly guarded in his manner. I mean to say, he blabbered - especially in the taverns. Which was much of the time. He liked to shock - to provoke. Both in his utterings and in his plays.

At the time many Puritan preachers were declaiming the theatre in general - and Marlowe’s plays in particular. They appeared, increasingly, on every street corner. Their clamours becoming louder, daily.

They said that wherever Marlowe encouraged a questioning of the 'True Faith, he gave succour to the government's enemies from the Old Faith. They implied that with his words, Marlowe twisted the knife into Our Majesty’s heart, little by little. Those were dangerous times for England and had been since the day Her Majesty was excommunicated by Rome.

There's no doubt that to Cecil, Kit was a loose cannon. He was a lone-wolf, and there were many other lone-wolves, who taken together could form a pack. So Cecil began to draw his net by fractions of degrees and the cogs of the Service were duly turned against Kit.

Kit knew he was under scrutiny. A man called Baines was often seen eavesdropping at the Unicorn. He and Kit shared a nodding acquaintance at Cambridge. A little man, With a little wit and a smaller imagination. Kit thought him of no consequence but I counseled caution. And yet another dangerous man, Kit's former spymaster Robyn Poley had also been seen hanging around Kit's rooms and the Bishopsgate taverns.

It worried me and I advised Kit to draw back into the shadows a little. We were working together on our history of the sixth Henry at the time. I wasn't even certain I wanted to have my own name on the play bill. It was enough for me to see it performed. I had no desire to be the centre of attention. Or of scrutiny.

But Kit demanded it. He wanted to shake the dull drudges and complacent clerics from their lethargy; from their self-conceit; their accepted wisdom. Shaken - bodily. They must be made to see a different point of view, contrary to their own. Even if it was an ugly, blood-stained truth.

Kit thought he was untouchable because of his association with Raleigh. He thought they'd merely watch him and wag their fingers, but fall shy of anything more. But Cecil's minions, Poley and Baines plotted against Kit and there was a third man Topcliffe the torturer.

Between them they were building up a dossier of Kit's utterances, some from his plays but others overheard in the taverns. ‘That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest...That if there be any good religion, then it's the Papists, because the service of God is performed with more theatre and pretty ceremony…that all Protestants are hypocritical assess.’ Oh and 'That all those who love not tobacco and boys are fools!’ I liked that one.

It's a wonder they didn't act against Kit sooner but no doubt Cecil didn't want to create a bleeding martyr. He had to find a way which would be recognised as a warning to other subversive elements - but also a way which would seem commonplace and plausible to the people. So gradually they garnered their evidence against him.

Now Cecil had an adopted brother Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, known to many as Harry, the Earl of the Playhouses, although he didn't care for the epithet. Harry was a close friend of young Thomas Walsingham, Kit's noble patron - and more besides. I didn't know this at the time but it seems that through Harry, Cecil made the acquaintance of Thomas. And Cecil found that he had a hold on Thomas, after all it wouldn’t bode well if his intimacy with Kit were to become - bandied about the Court. Vague rumours and gossip can so often turn into a more tangible threat. There was, after all, a capital offence involved.

So Thomas was forced to supply information to Cecil on Kit's state of mind and particularly to discover where his writings were leading.

At this time Kit was writing the story of the second Edward. His loss of the Crown. His unnatural acts and - the grotesque manner of his despatch. To Cecil this would be a flagrant display of the removal, by violence and murder, of God’s Anointed on Earth.

So Thomas became Cecil's eyes on Kit and in turn Harry was to play a similar role when I also became the focus of Cecil's scrutiny. I wasn't aware of this until many years later, but it was Cecil who charged Harry to take me under his wing. He knew that I would find his purse and his charms - quite irresistible.

In any event, a poet can do nothing without a patron. To be a playwright is the food on the table, but - poetry – that is the food of the Gods! And remember, there’s another reason we sought to entwine ourselves with a noble patron. It procures for the poet a degree of protection, although for Kit, Thomas Walsingham's patronage would have quite the opposite effect.

I first made Harry's acquaintance in the Unicorn. Thomas Walsingham introduced us and the noble Earl inquired about my humble scribblings. I told him of my intention to cover afresh the whole saga of the Wars of the Roses but Harry was more interested in my poetry which had always been my greater ambition. I recited to him my first attempt at a poem about the tragic tale of Venus and Adonis. ‘

But hers, through which the crystal tears gave light. Shone like the moon on water seen by night’ and so on.

It was as yet half-formed and crude but he seemed impressed. I offered to dedicate to him a more polished version and he in turn suggested that his connections could be of use to me.

Kit was envious. He complained that he had several plays to his name and yet he hadn't yet secured such noble patronage. This was meant as a jibe at Thomas but our talk was interrupted by Ned Alleyn rushing into the tavern.

There’d been a raid. The militia had ransacked Kit's lodgings, taken his papers and books. What's worse, his fellow lodger Thomas Kyd had been taken to the Bridewell and hauled before Topcliffe for questioning. He'd been accused of heresy. Aiding and abetting!

Kyd was known to be a pious fellow, which would no doubt strengthen their case and if he refused to blacken Kit's name, whatever persuasion Topcliffe's lady of the rack was lacking - his thumbscrews possessed in abundance.

Of course it was Kit they were really after. A notice pinned to the door of his chambers demanded his immediate attendance at the Star Chamber – the court of inquiry for nobles and celebrities.

I knew something like this would happen! Tom Kyd was to be laid out on Topcliffe’s rack, all because of a his association with Kit. Perhaps we were all to be dragged down with him. Kit thought it wouldn't come to that. A stern lecture before the Star Chamber - but that’s all. He'd been a naughty child, who must bow low and repent before his Masters. They wanted to see him writhe and squirm but he had a mind to give them quite another sort of spectacle.

Well poor Kyd did indeed receive Topcliffe's ministrations with the rack and the thumbscrews. He was forced to sign a confession to the effect that Kit would regularly blaspheme and jest at the divine scriptures - jibe at prayers – and contradict what had been written by the prophets and assert that things understood to be done by divine power might just as well have been done by man - and more besides.

Despite his testimony, poor Kyd paid a price. He would write no more. No more thumbs so no more plays.

For Kit the Star Chamber seemed the apt place to give a star performance. But no one stood in his defence. Neither Raleigh nor Walsingham nor any of the other esteemed members of the School of Night. He had the stage entirely to himself.

He was released on bail, under charges of blasphemy and treason. Released he thought, because he had his protectors. I wasn't so sure the shelter of Raleigh’s cloak provided any kind of protection. After all, Walsingham’s patronage didn’t keep Kit from arrest. The first whiff of scandal attaching itself to his noble arse, and he disappeared back to his country seat.

So - not only was Kit a free man but he'd received a summons to meet with his former spymaster Robyn Poley at Deptford. Kit thought that if he was to work as their agent again it was clear that he'd been forgiven.

It seemed strange to me. One moment they’re hauling him before the Star Chamber - and the next, they’re welcoming him back into the fold. Why would they send one they branded the ‘Papist’s Ally’ to spy for their Protestant cause? There was no reason to suppose that Cecil looked upon Kit at all favourably. He was certainly behind Kyd’s torture and – Kit's arrest. And with Poley nothing was ever quite as it seemed. Kit was supposed to meet Poley at Widow Bull’s rooming house, upon the Deptford Strand. I offered to accompany him to Deptford. Kit was reluctant at first but we agreed I would wait nearby. I knew a tavern on the Strand and Kit was to send a message when his meeting was over.

So on the thirtieth day of May fifteen ninety three, Kit meets with Poley in Deptford fully expecting to be despatched to France - or to the Low Countries.

Well, he was indeed to be despatched. One last despatch upon God’s green earth.

I don't know what really transpired inside that rooming house or even if there were others present but I'm sure Poley was the one to do the deed. The full might of Her Majesty’s Crown - and all her exalted intelligencers - had no better target than the son of a Canterbury cobbler, who merely wrote of the world.

The hours rolled by and I'd received no message from Kit so I left the tavern and made my way to the rooming house. There was no answer to my knock but the door was ajar so I entered with some trepidation. I called but received no answer. The house seemed deserted but then in a back room I found Kit lying beside the hearth in a pool of blood.

I took him in my arms - but he was cold. There was no breath of life. His final act was ended. His final stage, a bare room and a cold floor. His final prop, his own bloodied knife. The tragic hero lay alone.

I was inconsolable but it wouldn't do be found at the scene of the crime. I had enough presence of mind to make a swift exit and retuned to my lodgings to grieve all alone. I made a vow that day. One way or another I would get my revenge on Robert Cecil and for as long as we both lived I swore I would remain a thorn in his side.

Of course Kit wasn't the only playwright who suffered at the hands of the authorities. You now know about Thomas Kyd but there were also Decker, Tourner, Ben Johnson and others. They all served time for their art at her Majesty's pleasure.

Of course I was more cautious that Kit and the others. But if you peer deep enough, the criticism and ridicule are there. Just more closely-veiled.

Think of it. My kings are seldom paragons of virtue. They're weak; corrupt; blind; decadent; or murderously ambitious. Think of my two Richards, Lear and Julius Caesar. Think of Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, and Macbeth.

More often than not, in my plays, the attainment of Royal power is more of a curse than a blessing. Like Kit’s ‘Edward the Second’, I portrayed a fallen crown and a usurper taking control of the Kingdom. There was more than a shade of Kit’s Mortimer in my own Henry Bolingbroke

I know these depictions outraged Robert Cecil. Kit was murdered as a subtle warning to the playhouse fraternity - not to overstep the mark. And I responded with equal subtlety.

Sometimes, I would get in a dig at Cecil directly. Why do you think I made the villainous third Richard a hunchback, like Cecil? (chuckles) And then in ‘Hamlet’, my words of advice, by the foolish and pompous Polonius, to his son, were almost a direct quotation of Lord Burghley’s advice to his own son - Robert Cecil. You may recall that Burghley’s words were published. An pompous affectation, in itself.

Then there was my most direct reference to Kit’s murder, in ‘As You Like It’. When Phoebe spoke of ‘a great reckoning in a little room’. You see the coroner’s official verdict had Kit murdered in a tavern brawl, supposedly arguing over the ‘reckoning’. What hokum! Then - just in case Cecil was in any doubt that I was referring to Kit, I littered the play with Ganymedes and shepherds.

You see I always thought of Kit as the shepherd of the playwrights. The man who led us all. Remember also his lyric, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. And years later I paid homage to the shepherd in ‘The Merry Wives',

‘To shallow rivers, to whose falls, harmonious birds sing madrigals’…

I'm often asked why I suddenly retired from my life as a playwright at the tender age of forty seven. The answer's simple enough. When Cecil died three years ago my motivation to be a constant source of irritation died with him.

Two things motivate men above all else, the desire for immortality and the desire for revenge. In my work I satiated both desires but the latter was far stronger. So with the news of Cecil’s death, it seemed like the apt time for this old man to put down his quill. So within weeks of his death I returned here to Stratford. (pause, shrugs) Perhaps I’d said enough.

I eventually became estranged from Harry, the Earl of the playhouses. Of course I didn’t know back then that he became my patron only because ordered to by Cecil. But many years after Kit’s murder – I discovered through Baines of all people, that Harry was put up to the job by Cecil, that he became my patron precisely to keep an eye on me and to garner evidence against Kit. And more importantly, that he knew in advance of Cecil’s intention to have Kit struck down.

When I learned of this – it was a savage blow to me. And so, I vowed to put some distance between us. We haven’t spoken in more than two decades. The persistent clamour of uncomfortable truths. Kit taught me that lesson well.

There are those who ask why I seemed reluctant to take the credit for my plays. Cecil clearly knew how I felt, but there was much to be gained in stepping back from the limelight. If I, like Kit, ever had to stand up in the Star Chamber I could always emphasise my role as an actor-manager - and downplay my role as the playwright.

There was, after all, amongst the company, elements of collaboration in many of the plays. Cecil could hardly have consigned a whole theatre company to the Tower. Much as he'd have liked to! And all the plays - with the exception of ‘The Tempest’ - were based on preceding works, to a greater or lesser degree. Would my forerunners, named and nameless, also shoulder some of the blame?

Keeping my name off the playbill was a means of avoiding responsibility - and recriminations - should the need arise.

Well my final tale is told and perhaps you're asking yourself if my relationship with Kit was ever more than just friendship. Although should be no just about it. A loyal friendship is a the noblest of human bonds. Let me answer it this way. After his murder I dedicated an epic poem to Kit. ‘The Rape of Ganymede’. But it remains unpublished to this day. In this work I lay Kit and myself too bare for any public scrutiny. The world doesn't need to know the details of our special bond. Or indeed that we knew each other at all.

You know it all now but for most the truth will remain forever shrouded in the mists of time.

Dead shepherd now I find thy words of might. Whoever loved that loved not at first sight.

CALL BACK

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

I've got to tell you about this because something totally weird's happened. I'm not joking. Totally weird.

This morning this guy brings his smart phone into my repair shop. I've never seen him before. Tall white guy, Hawaiian shirt, Ray Bans, straw hat. He's got the very latest dual screen smartphone. The Orion. Very nice. It's the first time I've laid my hands on one.

Trouble is he's dropped it and it's not working properly. When he tries to make a call it makes a different call to someone else and when he tries to go online he ends up on a different website altogether. Definitely not what he typed in. To be honest I've never seen a phone do that before. To make matters worse there's an obvious dent on the corner so his warranty's fucked.

Now I wasn't really confident I could do anything with it but business is slack so I say I'll have a go and I tell him I'll email him when it's ready.

So just as soon as he left, I opened it up and couldn't find anything obviously wrong but sometimes when you drop a phone really hard the processor gets dislodged so I took it out and put it back in again and re-soldered a few dodgy connections.

When I put the Orion back together it kind of worked although when you typed in a number it came out backwards on the screen. It was the same when you tried to google something.

When I typed in 'second test at Lords' to see the results of the match it came out in what I thought was Welsh. Then I realised it was actually English backwards. But if I typed it backwards it appeared OK on the screen but it still wouldn't log on to the latest results. All I could get was last week's news about the first test.

Then I had an idea. I tried calling my mate Bilal by typing his number backwards. And it worked. Sort of. Now this is the really weird bit. The conversation went something like this.

I said 'You still OK for tonight?'

He said 'what's happening tonight?'

I said 'we're going down The Electric with Hamza and Yousef'

He said 'that's next Friday. The Electric's not open on Mondays. Anyway we never go out on a Monday.'

I asked him what's he talking about. 'We're going tonight. Friday the 18th like we agreed.'

He thinks I'm having him on. He says that's four days off. I didn't know what he was playing at. I thought maybe he'd had a bump on the head or something.

Then I called Yousef and asked him what's up with Bilal. I mentioned how he doesn't seem to know what day of the week it is. The strange thing was, Yousef thinks it's Monday as well. Actually last Monday the fourteenth, four days ago. I came to the conclusion that they were in on it together.

So I called my mum and mentioned their funny business and she says it's Monday as well and how she'd be round at Gran's if it was Friday. She had a point there. I was beginning to doubt myself so I turn on the one o'clock news to make sure, but it's Friday alright. Friday the 18th. Well I knew that anyway. I remember what I was doing on Tuesday 15th Wednesday 16th and Thursday 17th. But Bilal and Yousef and Mum all think it's still Monday 14th. So I called Dad and then Hamza and it was the same story with them. They must think I'm going crazy.

The battery was getting low on the Orion so I put it on charge and I used my iphone to call Ali to see what day he thought it was. He thinks I'm daft but agrees with me it's definitely Friday.

So I had a thought and called Mum again but this time on the iphone and she's round at Grans and as far she's concerned its Friday. So there's only one explanation. Whenever I call anyone, using the Orion they're picking up the phone four days ago. It's as if I'm calling backwards in time!

It's the same with the internet. I tried Googling 'today's weather', in reverse of course and I ended up with the weather for Monday 14th. I've never known anything like it.

There's something else strange. When I spoke to mum on my iphone she couldn't remember my call to her on the Orion which for her was four days previously.

So I get to thinking. This is quite something. I decided it would be a good idea to hold on to the Orion so I emailed the customer and told him his phone was kaput. Well it was in a way.

He said there was no point in him coming back for it and I could keep it for parts. I googled 'phone call back in time' it but I couldn't find any situations even remotely similar. I wondered if I should report it. But who would I report it to? I mean this is a big deal. If the Orion falls into the government's hands just imagine what they'd do with it.

They could use it to prevent leaks or whistle-blowers or undermine the Labour Party or anyone else who was against them.

In theory they could do some good stuff as well but I don't trust this government any further than I could throw them. This crew are only in power because of Brexit and that only happened because they sold us a pack of lies. Including Islamophobic lies. And they've done nothing but lie and cheat to cover up their uselessness dealing with Covid. Look at the way they counted a pair of gloves as two items of PPE. Knowing their form, I'm surprised they didn't count each finger separately. No way would I trust them with the Orion. So all things considered I decided not to tell anyone about it.

I'm wondering how I can profit from it. The most obvious thing would be to phone bookies four days ago and place bets on on winning horses. But I could do some good stuff as well. For example I could save lives by warning people about disasters. But can I actually change events by sending a message into the past? If I stop a disaster it wouldn't have happened so how do I get to hear about it in the first place? I suppose there's only one way to find out.

Jesus, it's got really cold all of a sudden.

 

* * * * *

 

I got caught in a downpour. Well, if I'm honest it was more like a monsoon. I don't know what's going on with the weather.

Anyway as it happens I didn't have long to wait before I had a good reason to try out the Orion.

Roxi called me on the iphone this afternoon. She's in tears because Ibrahim's had a serious accident. Roxi and Ibrahim are my cousins. He's in hospital with concussion, two broken legs and internal bleeding.

He was out on his bike early this morning. He's in a cycling club and most Sunday's it's on with the lycra and off they go cycling in the countryside.

From what she tells me eight of them were cycling two a breast along a narrow lane. Ibrahim's on the outside and this van comes round the corner and ploughs into them.

Now I should mention that I've not told Roxi or anyone else about the phone for obvious reasons.

So I after I get off the iphone to Roxi, I ring Ibrahim with the Orion and he picks up four days before his accident. Last Wednesday in other words. The trouble is I hadn't really thought it through.

When I said it might be a good idea if he didn't go cycling the following Sunday because I've had a premonition of disaster he just laughs at me. So I say at least he should avoid cycling two abreast.

That's when he got angry. He said riding two abreast increases cyclists' visibility and prevents cars trying to overtake when there isn't enough space. He said it was encouraged by Cycling UK. They're not breaking the law. It's motorists who're breaking the law if they come within a metre and half of a cyclist.

He's one of these serious cyclists with all the gear who see motorists as their sworn enemy. They like nothing better than holding up a long queue of traffic. The fact that I drive a Celica GT Turbo didn't help my case.

So I had a re-think. I looked at the results of yesterday's test match and called him again. Now strangely he acted if he didn't remember our earlier conversation so I had to tell him all over again again about my premonition that he might have an accident.

This time I didn't bother mentioning cycling two abreast but I also told him to keep an eye on the match at Lords on Saturday. I told him how Australia would bat first and would be 132 for 3 in the 36th over, but would lose 3 wickets for 17 runs in the next five.

I told him this was all part of my premonition so if it all happened as I said, he knows to be careful on Sunday or better still not go cycling at all.

Of course he thinks I'm nuts. But he did mention how he wasn't feeling one hundred percent so he might not be going cycling anyway. And he said to make matters worse the weather had suddenly changed. He mentioned thunder and lightening and torrential rain which is odd if you think about it. That simply didn't happen last Wednesday. There hadn't been a cloud in the sky for over a week until this afternoon's downpour. Actually it's still chucking it down.

Just as soon as I end the call to Ibrahim on the Orion I call him back on my iphone in the present day when it's Sunday afternoon, but he doesn't answer. So I called Roxi and she's still at the hospital so it looks like nothing's changed. In fact from what she told me if anything, Ibrahim's suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

He obviously didn't listen to what I'd told him despite my predictions about Saturday's test. So I decided to go down the hospital if only to keep Roxi company. It was chaos on the roads. The river's burst it's banks and flooded the high street.

When I eventually got to the Hospital I asked Roxi if Ibrahim had said anything about a conversation I'd had with him about the match on Saturday. She said he hadn't mentioned it. The odd thing is, she was there when he watched the match live on Sky Sports and saw everything happen just as I'd said it would. It's strange he didn't say anything.

 

* * * * *

 

The day after I went to the hospital, the police released the name of the woman who'd driven into Ibrahim. Brenda Moran. I Googled her name, Turns out she's a florist in Bradwell so I sent a message to her shop's website using the Orion. Again I explained my premonition and mentioned how the match was going to go on Saturday and how she was going to be responsible for a serious accident if she didn't drive more carefully on Sunday. Then I called Roxi on my iphone and Ibrahim's still in hospital hanging on by a thread.

Maybe this Brenda Moran didn't get my email. So I tried calling her instead, using the Orion. I rang her Florists shop but she wasn't there. I got to speak to her assistant Brenda who told me Mrs Moran wasn't in the shop that day. All of a sudden like, she's gone down with a bad dose of flu. I thought at least she probably wouldn't be driving around on the Sunday.

Strangely this Brenda asked me about the weather where I am. Without thinking I mentioned the storm. Apparently it's the same where she is, and when she is for that matter. She said there was something on the news about a sudden area of low pressure which was very unusual because it was confined to this corner of Essex. Nowhere else was affected.

None of that made sense because the weather was definitely fine four days ago. I used my iphone to check the local weather reports four days ago and as I thought, until the freak storms which started yesterday, we've had one of the sunniest July's on record. Which is the opposite of what the florist was saying. They can't both be right. What the fuck's going on?

When I called Roxi again on my iphone she told me Ibrahim was if anything worse and the Doctors are starting to worry. I don't know why, but trying to change events by sending messages back in time just doesn't seem to be working. I don't know what else I can do.

 

* * * * *

 

This freak weather isn't letting up. You should have seen the lightning last night. It was wicked! And the town centre's been evacuated because of the flooding.

Anyway as an experiment I've decided I'm going to try to use the Orion to get my love life back on track. You see a couple of weeks ago I met this great girl on Tender but I've already messed up the relationship. We'd had five dates in a fortnight and things were really going well. Then two nights ago Amber – that's her name by the way, well she sent me a text cancelling our next date.

She was annoyed with me because my profile was still live and she'd asked her friend Rameen to contact me, as a test if you see what I mean?

Rameen's really hot so of course I responded and we set up a date for two nights ago but she didn't turn up. It turns out Amber thinks we shouldn't be seeing anyone else and when she found out I've other ideas she decided to end it.

To my mind it was too soon to be exclusive but I obviously misjudged the situation. Amber pointed out that Tender is for serious relationships. Not just for hook ups. She said the clue's in the name. Well maybe, but in my experience it takes a while before you know if she's the one and in the meantime there's no harm in playing the field. Well that's my philosophy. But it's a shame because I really liked Amber.

So I used the Orion to log in to my profile and suspend it four days previously.

Rameen got in touch with me three days ago so that shouldn't happen now.

So as soon as I'd suspended my profile I get on the iphone to Amber but she didn't want to talk to me. She wasn't feeling very well and it was obvious nothing had changed.

I wasn't a hundred percent myself so maybe we've caught the same bug. There's something going around. Dad and Mum have got it as well. And Bilal and Yousef and Hamza. In fact everyone I know seems to going down with something. It's not exactly the flu. And it's different to Covid. It's more like being really tired all the time. I think half the town has it. You can't get through to our local GP.

Maybe it's something to do with this freak weather. They say it's the coldest and wettest it's ever been in July. We've had more rain in the last two days than you usually see in a month.

Anyway I went on line using my iphone and double checked my profile in the here and now and fuck me it was still active and there was the conversation I'd had with Rameen. So no wonder Amber's still mad with me. None of this make any sense. I think I need some expert advice.

There's this Professor Potts who lives next door but one and teaches physics at the uni. He once came into my shop for a charger and we always nod when we pass in the street. According to Dad he's been sidelined in his department and his wife isn't very sympathetic. So he likes to get out from under her feet and most night's he's drinking alone in The Bell. Dad thinks he's bit lonely, maybe depressed. He might be the best person to speak to but I'm not going to mention the Orion directly.

* * * * *

 

So despite being well out of sorts I go down the Bell and sure enough the Professor's in the saloon bar drinking alone. In fact he's the only one in there. I think anyone who hasn't gone down with this bug was staying at home anyway on account of the weather.

The road into town was blocked because of the floods so I decided to walk through the park. I've never known winds like it. I nearly got blown off my feet. I kept away from the trees in case I got struck by lightening. By the time I got to the Bell I was soaked.

I said hi and we got talking about all this weather and then I asked him about his job at the uni. When we got on to physics I started talking about all the films involving time travel, like The Terminator and Back to the Future.

I asked him if he thought it would ever be possible.

He said fifty years ago, no serious scientist would ever talk about time travel but that all changed when they discovered how black holes distort time. If their power could be controlled, maybe by creating an artificial black hole, you'd have a practical way of travelling through time.

That's wicked, but he said there would be massive technical challenges if a human being was to travel through time without being crushed by the black hole's gravitational forces.

I asked him, what if you could send a message back through time. He said in theory that was much more straightforward. He mentioned how some scientists in Switzerland actually think they've detected particles which travel faster than light and so travel backwards in time. Now we were getting somewhere.

I asked him if it would possible to influence past events using these particles.

He said only if you could get around the problem of creating a paradox which is basically something impossible. For example if a scientist sent a signal back in time which somehow altered the events which led to his parents hooking up then the scientist wouldn't have existed in the first place. But if he didn't exist who sent the signal? That's a paradox.

He said the only way you could alter the past without creating a paradox would be if what he called 'parallel timelines' were created. There would be the original timeline from where the signals are sent back in time. Then there would be a separate new timeline created each time past events are changed by a signal from the future.

So every time I called Ibrahim or contacted the florist I created a separate new timeline. Maybe I prevented the accident in those timelines but in this timeline it still happened. So there's nothing I can do to help Ibrahim in this timeline.

New timelines must have been created by those calls on the Orion to Mum and Dad and Bilal and the others when there was all that confusion over the date. No wonder none of them remember those conversations. As far as they're concerned the conversations didn't even happen in this timeline. I didn't really change anything so those new timelines must be very similar to this one except they must all think I'm a bit daft.

So all those films where someone from the future changes the past in their own timeline are just nonsense. That's completely impossible. Because they'd create a paradox.

But there's a more to it than that. According to the Professor the creation of parallel timelines would contradict some law about the conservation of energy. You can't get energy from nowhere so the only way around it is if the total amount of energy in the original timeline is shared with the new timelines. I didn't really understand that bit.

I asked him what would happen if a signal from the present saved a life in the past. Someone who would otherwise have died. He said there would be two timelines, one in which the person died and one in which they lived but the new timeline would get its energy from the original timeline so both timelines would be diminished in some way especially for the people most affected by the difference in the timelines.

That sort of explains what's been happening. Ibrahim's condition went downhill when I created a timeline where he didn't have the accident. It looks like all I've done is make matters worse for him. And when I contacted the florist by email another new timeline was created and the florist fell ill.

And when I created a timeline where my dating profile was suspended and there was no contact with Rameen, this probably created a timeline in which my relationship with Amber continued but everyone involved, me and Amber and probably Rameen as well – all fell ill in this timeline. Maybe in the other timeline as well. There's no way of knowing about that.

Then there's this business with the weather being different in the past to how I remember it. I asked Professor Potts if the weather would be affected by this energy loss. He obviously thought it was a strange question but yes, he said the weather local to the divergence of the time lines might be one of the first things to be affected.

A loss of energy could result in an area of low pressure exactly like what we were having. Now I was worried. I asked him if people whose lives were changed by the signals from the future would be permanently affected.

He didn't know for sure but he didn't think so. He thought it would probably be a temporary disruption because the total amount of energy in the universe is so massive. Energy would flow into the low energy areas so after a while it would average out and you'd barely notice the difference.

I think he was right about that because after a few days the weather calmed down and I started to get better as did Mum and Dad and the others and even Ibrahim came out of intensive care. He's still in hospital but eventually he's expected to make a full recovery. That's a weight off my mind.

I didn't get round to ringing bookies and placing bets on winning horses. I know there's no point because I wouldn't be able to collect the winnings in this timeline. All I might end up doing is making myself ill again and making a mess of the weather.

The Orion isn't completely useless. You see I if use it to send repeated messages or phone calls to someone four days ago they're going to get ill. The more messages I send the worse they'll get as each new timeline is created. If they're people completely unconnected to me I won't suffer at all.

So it doesn't look as if I can do any good with the Orion for myself or for anyone else. Not directly anyway. But I reckon I can do a great deal of harm. All I need to do now is get hold of the contact details of people who deserve to fall ill. All those lying cheating politicians for a start. So don't be surprised if you hear about some freak storms over ten Downing Street. That's all I'm saying.

Good King Richard

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

I wasn't looking forward to my reunion with King Edward. It was by no means a happy occasion.

I came hot foot from York when I learned of Clarence's fate. They say he was given the opportunity to choose his means of execution and he elected to be drowned in a butt of malmsey. That was typical of Clarence. But Edward, is by nature a tolerant man. Why then did he suddenly turn against our brother?

I've never seen Edward so chastened, so full of regret,

But he could have drawn back at any time; before, during or after Clarence’s trial.

He claimed that would have been seen as a sign of weakness, but what's a semblance of weakness compared to our brother’s life?

He referred to certain pressures, from his scheming wife Elizabeth and the rest of the Woodville clan. It seems they implored him daily to sign Clarance's death warrant.

The damned Woodvilles! Edward has given that family his ear far too often.

It seems he'd been persuaded by Elizabeth that Clarence was intent on seizing the throne.

In truth Clarence had merely protested the innocence of his astrologer, John Stacey, who'd confessed under torture to plotting Edward's death.

But is torture a reliable means of achieving the truth? The tortured only ever reveal that which the torturer wishes to hear. And Torture merely serves to give employment to cruel and vicious men who would otherwise inflict their violence in an arbitrary way.

According to Edward, this astrologer conspired to bring about his death by the black arts, by sorcery and necromancy. How could he be taken in by this incorrigible nonsense?

When I hear of magic and sorcery, I know that all reason's departed. For heaven’s sake! This is fourteen seventy eight, we’re not living in the dark ages!

Clarence wasn’t even involved in this ridiculous plot – if there ever was one.

There was yet more to Clarence’s supposed treachery. He had lately sought the hand of Mary of Burgundy against the King's express wishes.

Edward claims Clarence planned this union as justification for seizing the throne.

And from where did he hear that? From the Woodville’s of course.

When Edward made Elizabeth his bride she didn’t come alone. She brought a whole family of brothers and sons and all manner of relatives rapacious for advancement. For two score years they've schemed and plotted to gain favours, positions, lands, noble titles and advantageous marriages well beyond their station. Their greed and ambition knows no bounds and Edward has long been manipulated.

I've kept my council whilst Clarence spoke out and paid the price. Had I been as honest and forthright in voicing my opinion of the Queen’s family would I have met a similar fate? But what had the Woodvilles to gain?

Yes, Clarence had spoken out against their influence for many years. But nothing had changed and lately very few paid heed to his words. So why now move against Clarence and risk Edward's enduring enmity?

I implored him to question Elizabeth. More than likely she's at the centre of it all. She oft disguises her motives and seldom acts in Edward's best interest. He implied I've been more fortunate in my choice of bride but Anne merely returns the devotion I feel for her. If you care enough for any woman then she will care for you in equal measure. What ye sow, so shall ye reap.

One way or another, Clarence will be avenged but there's a lot more to this than meets the eye.

At least we didn't part in an atmosphere of recrimination. I won't let this come between us. I don’t even blame Edward. But I pity him. He's as much a victim of Woodville ambition as poor Clarence.

I'll return to the north and continue to rule those lands in Edward's name. As long as the Woodvilles hold him in their grasp, I'll be glad to be free of the scheming and duplicity of this pernicious court.

 

* * * * *

 

Five years have passed since Clarence's execution. Now King Edward himself has breathed his last. It seems he suffered a great sickness and the finest physicians in the land could find no cause. There were certain peculiarities. Peculiarities which pointed at poisoning. Possibly by arsenic.

I received notice in York that he had died on the Sabbath and then as I prepared to travel to London, another messenger came, announcing that he had recovered after a 'stomach fever'. Yet a third messenger confirmed his death a full week after the first.

It is as if poison was administered not once but twice and on the first occasion it was ineffective. I firmly believe the Woodvilles to be behind this.

Poor Edward. He deserved better. After all he had done for that perfidious family. You make take a serpent to your bosom, you may lavish it with gifts and favours, but it remains a serpent.

Five years ago I vowed to avenge the death of poor Clarence and now I have yet another brother’s death to avenge.

It was King Edward's final wish that I be appointed Protector of the Realm, and look after the heir to throne, until he comes of age. Prince Edward is not yet thirteen.

It’s a poisoned chalice. History teaches us a Protector’s days are numbered when the rightful monarch ascends to the throne. Unlike a King who rules till his death, a Protector as with any other ephemeral regent, lives to face the retribution of those who failed to prosper during his sway. Whilst in office he must always consider his future position, his purse and the prospect of calling in favours after his term of office.

Only a King who expects to rule in perpetuity can exercise his power for the good of the Kingdom without compromise and without favour. In theory at least.

As Protector my first task's to prevent the Woodvilles seizing power in Prince Edward's name. He would be no more than a puppet in their hands and England will be the worse for it.

The Woodvilles currently have the young Prince in their custody so it was arranged I would take charge of him here at Northampton but it seems the Queen’s family have their own plans. They marched past yesterday with a great army and are making haste to London.

I sent a rider after them to establish their intentions. They’re camped for the night at Stony Stratford but many soldiers lay in wait on the road. It appears they plan to ambush me. Well that comes as no surprise.

Elizabeth's brother, Earl Rivers leads this Woodville army. He thought to bring ten thousand men but Parliament won't permit him to approach London in such strength. They fear a coup d'état and the Woodville army has been ordered to disband to one fifth of that number.

Still, two thousand then. And I have but two hundred poorly armed attendants so we can't meet them in battle. But we can at least avoid an ambush.

I'll stay in Northampton a while and send a message to Rivers, asking him to join me in conference. When he comes I'll arrest him. With their leader in my custody his great army will likely disband and I will escort the Prince to London as was originally agreed.

I have firm grounds for arresting Earl Rivers. I suspect his collusion in the Kings murder. Immediately before Edward's death, Rivers went to great pains to accumulate several powers. Powers which could be used to maintain control over Prince Edward.

But why would Rivers murder the King? He benefited greatly from Edward's generosity. Too greatly in my estimation. Although it is said that the Woodvilles were losing their influence.

When he first fell ill the King changed his will to the Queen’s disadvantage. Perhaps Edward finally gained her true measure. Perhaps he knew he was being poisoned and by whom. But there remains the question of motive. There's still something missing from this murderous tale.

 

* * * * *

 

I'm beginning to see a connection between Edward's murder and the execution of Clarence. My words to Edward five years ago planted a seed of doubt in his mind. It seems he challenged Elizabeth to reveal the truth behind her animosity towards Clarence, the reason why she finally wanted rid of him.

I hear that it took a knife to her throat to persuade her to reveal the truth of the matter.

But that's all I know. Precisely what Elizabeth told Edward still eludes me.

Something must have happened immediately before Clarence's arrest. Something which persuaded Elizabeth to pursue her course against Clarence.

Two events have come to my attention and both of them concern Robert Stillington, the former Lord Chancellor and now Bishop of Bath and Wells.

I have it on good authority he was in communication with Clarence in the month leading up

his execution. Furthermore, Stillington was arrested at the same time as Clarence and there is evidence Elizabeth wanted him to meet the same fate. So I've summoned Stillington to the Palace. Then perhaps I will get to the nub of this matter.

 

* * * * *

 

The truth is out - and it's of far greater moment than I ever suspected.

Stillington admitted that he did indeed instigate a meeting with Clarence, his purpose being to impart a great revelation. That at the time of Edward and Elizabeth’s union, the King was already married to another, namely the Lady Eleanor Butler.

It was Stillington who officiated at the ceremony. It is to his eternal discredit that he kept this to himself for so long. Honour demanded he come forward when Edward married Elizabeth.

Stillington argued that he was at the time quite unaware of the second and therefore illegal ceremony. It's true enough, knowledge of the union between Edward and Elizabeth remained secret for many months thereafter. And now we know why.

It seems that after the marriage, Eleanor retreated to a convent for what remained of her life. As a virtuous woman she could hardly marry again. But she was very much alive at the time of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth.

It was Edward's old comrade in arms, the current Lord Chamberlain, William Hastings who had introduced both Eleanor and Elizabeth to the King, along with many other fair maidens. Edward's famous appetites are very much at the heart of this matter.

Through Hastings, Queen Elizabeth herself must have been aware of the union with Eleanor - so she knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage! And as the second ceremony was conducted in secrecy no one could come forwards to challenge its legitimacy. No one except Hastings.

Elizabeth must have discovered Clarence knew about the previous marriage. Edward would never have agreed to execute his own brother merely to keep the matter secret. So she blackened Clarence's name, placing Edward in an invidious position. So Clarence met his end in the butt of malmsely and when at my instigation Edward forced her to reveal the truth, a great acrimony arose between them.

Elizabeth no doubt feared that there was then a risk Edward would avenge the death of Clarence by publicly admitting the existence of his marriage to Eleanor. Elizabeth's marriage to Edward would then be annulled and more importantly Prince Edward would be deemed illegitimate and therefore unable to claim the throne. That after all is Elizabeth’s greatest wish.

So we have a clear motive for Edward's murder at the hand of Elizabeth or another of the Woodville clan, perhaps Earl Rivers who was in attendance at the time. It's as well he's already in confinement.

Now I'm privy to the knowledge of Edward's first marriage I cannot honourably keep it to myself. To do so would make me party to this crime – for bigamy is a crime and to know of a crime but not reveal it to the proper authorities is also a crime.

 

* * * * *

 

Stillington’s word carried great weight and legal councils interviewed him at length, consulting also other bishops and many lawyers and calling for statements from diverse witnesses including Hastings, who at first refused to come forwards.

There were a few who still questioned the validity or indeed the very existence of the marriage to Eleanor but they were forced to ask themselves why Stillington's revelation hasn't been refuted by Elizabeth herself? Nor in fact by members of the late Eleanor's powerful family.

To resolve the matter, members of The Great Council were summoned from around the Kingdom. One hundred and fifty Lords sat in debate for three days and at its conclusion an act of parliament was passed declaring Edward and Elizabeth's union bigamous and all their children bastards.

As the senior remaining legitimate heir to the throne of England, I was offered the Crown. But should I accept? I had neither this expectation nor this ambition.

There's a part of me would much rather return to my modest fiefdom in the north. Whist this long conflict betwixt York and Lancaster persists the crown brings with it great danger both to my person and to those close to me.

Before reaching a decision I received a message from Hastings. He had information which he said could only be imparted in the most private circumstances. He wished only Lord Stanley and John Morton accompany him.

So the Lancastrian contingent has finally come out of the woodwork. I need to be wary of those two. I hear they've promised Elizabeth that they'll do their utmost to support Prince Edward's claim to the throne. But equally they may have yet another in mind.

Stanley’s step son Henry Tudor makes claim to be heir to the Lancaster line. Which is ridiculous. He’s a twice illegitimate descendent of a Welsh servant and a French whore!

Before meeting Hastings, I made some enquiries and it seems that he recently visited Elizabeth who after Earl Rivers' arrest, has taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps she fears there is something tangible to to connect her to Edward’s death.

So I had good reason to be suspicious of Hastings. His knowledge of the King's bigamous union was already a serious stain on his character. He knows full well I'm considering depriving him of his lands, his offices and his titles. Perhaps also his freedom.

And Hastings would much rather see Prince Edward crowned King. He's spent many years gaining his trust. There he has influence. He has none over me.

So before he came before me, I took the precaution of having him searched and he was found to be carrying a concealed weapon. I asked why was this dagger hidden about his person? And what had he been plotting with Elizabeth and with the Lancastrians, Morton and Stanley?

He knew the game was up. He had no reason to hold back. He accused me of being a usurper. He claimed to represent those who deplore my treatment of Prince Edward.

Well his mother is clearly not amongst them. She gladly and willingly allowed the Prince’s brother, young Richard of Shrewsbury, to join him in his comfortable state apartments in the Tower.

Would Elizabeth have allowed this if she didn’t trust my assurance to keep them both safe? She knows my character of old. She also knows my unwavering loyalty and love for my late brother. She can't harbour even the slightest expectation that I would ever harm his sons.

 

* * * * *

 

Anne thinks I’m too generous, but in the spirit of reconciliation I have it in mind to show clemency to Morton and Stanley, but Hastings came before me with murderous intent.

I have no choice but to make an example of him.

Hastings situation wasn't unique. There are many others in positions of authority who had a vested interest in Prince Edward’s succession. They have long expected it and they were counting on it.

But my succession has been agreed and accepted by three estates and confirmed by act of Parliament. The Kings Council, the Great Council, the Lords, the Commons and the City Fathers are all of one voice and the people of England are also behind me. They would rather their King were well proven in just administration and in the art of war than a boy who would be little more than a puppet King, controlled by the Woodvilles.

Their attempt to march on London with an army ten thousand strong will not be forgotten. Even as I speak they try to raise yet another army but there are none who'll support them.

They're also hungry for wealth. They certainly emptied my treasury. When I arrived in London there was barely a groat left! They've been menacing the Southern ports and then, with their ships laden with plundered English gold, they sailed over to form an alliance with Henry Tudor in Brittany.

There in France they now face the weak and uncertain rule of another boy king. There’s chaos in the land with warring factions wrestling for power. In like manner, England will doubtless descend into civil war if I refuse the crown. Hasting's plot is proof enough of that.

It is perhaps an irony that his actions more than any other factor incline me towards accepting the crown. Otherwise the kingdom would certainly descend into chaos. In defiance of parliament, the Woodvilles would seize power in Prince Edward's name. Even before Stillington’s revelation there were many who beseeched me to kerb their ambitions. I can't leave England at their mercy but as Protector I have limited authority to prevent civil war.

There will doubtless continue to be threats against my person from many quarters but England’s needs must come before my own - so in the interest of peace I will accept the crown.

 

* * * * *

 

Against all expectations I've been handed this great privilege and I'm determined when my reign's eventually over, I've leave England a happier and more equitable land.

Nothing creates misery and desperation more than the savage exploitation of one class of men by another. I've long observed the foul means by which many Lords keep their tenants in poverty and deny them justice. This above all must change.

It's my firm resolution the laws of England be applied entirely without favour, so that all men of whatever station be treated equally. To this end, I've instituted a program of reforms designed to bring fair and just governance to all. The process of the law will no longer be subverted by officers of the court and juries must be free from intimidation and tampering.

Furthermore, the accused will be granted bail and their possessions will no longer be confiscated.

I'll personally consider petitions from those who feel aggrieved or have been unlawfully wronged and I'll bring an end all unfair and arbitrary forms of taxation.

Of course those who have formerly gained much power and wealth on the backs of the poor already resent my reforms. And another dark cloud looms on the horizon.

Henry Tudor, in exile in Brittany has offered his support to the Woodvilles. Together they're hatching rebellion. But what does Henry Tudor have to gain from this venture? Why should he help them replace one scion of York with yet another?

Perhaps he sees an opportunity. In return for his support, he's asked for the hand of Elizabeth Woodville’s oldest daughter. And Elizabeth's given the impression she agrees to this union, although I suspect this is no more than a ruse. It would after all strengthen Henry's claim to the throne. But why would she feign agreement then? Is it because she knows a Woodville rebellion would likely fail without Henry's troops? Or French Troops to be precise.

Henry's been angling for this match for years, with one or other of the King’s daughters. He must know that Elizabeth could withdraw her promise once her son is enthroned. Perhaps an announcement of betrothal would alone be sufficient to serve Henry's purpose. There are many who would support a contender who promises a union between the houses of Lancaster and York.

 

* * * * *

 

To my knowledge only two Lords are prepared to support this Woodville rebellion.

The Marquis of Dorset which is to be expected. He is Elizabeth’s son. And to my great disappointment, Lord Buckingham whom I thought to be an ally.

Anne thinks he has his own sights on the crown. Certainly his title is as strong as Henry's, or as weak. So Henry intends to invade England to support this Woodville rebellion, feigning to Buckingham that his aim is to place him on the throne and at the same time feigning to Elizabeth Woodville that his purpose is to place Prince Edward on the throne. But hiding from both his true intention.

There is yet a further important ingredient in this recipe. The Tudors have started spreading a rumour that I have slain the Princes! No doubt their intention is that once deprived of their figurehead, Prince Edward, the rebels will switch their allegiance to Henry. Once his betrothal to Elizabeth of York is known, the Woodville supporters will likely accept his claim to the throne over Buckingham’s.

This notion I've slain the princes is appalling and utterly absurd. Now an act of parliament has declared them illegitimate they pose no threat to my authority. And I do I not need at least the appearance of the support of of their mother? For months I've been trying to persuade Elizabeth to emerge from her sanctuary. She'll only leave the Abbey if she knows her sons to be safe and knows also that her daughters will also be safe in my care.

How do I refute this horrible rumour? Some say I only need produce them. But who recognises the Princes? My enemies would claim I've produced two street urchins dressed up to resemble the Princes. The rumour would still persist. And I would have to bring them back to England. They've been moved to a place of safety abroad.

In the Tower they were in constant danger from Henry Tudor's assassins.

The Princes very existence poses a threat to his claim to the throne which after all rests on his betrothal to Elizabeth's daughter. Elizabeth of York. But there's no advantage to Henry if she's the spawn of a bigamous union.

If he were to gain the crown his very first act would be to rescind the act of parliament and deem all Elizabeth's children legitimate. But then the Princes would be first in line, not Henry. So for Henry to become King both Princes must perish.

 

* * * * *

 

Not one drop of innocent blood was shed when I came to the throne. Not one drop. But how many sons of England perished in the October rebellion? Indeed how many have perished these past thirty years so that either a scion of York or of Lancaster should occupy the throne of England?

What is history but an endless cycle of brutality and war; of domination, oppression, exploitation? And yet we revere the great conquerors of antiquity. The likes of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. But should we regard these tyrants as heroes? Or merely as bullies greedy for power and wealth. Eager to wage war to expand their conquests and entirely without regard for the lives of ordinary men. Martyrs to their ruthless ambition.

Well, the October rebellion failed for I enjoy great allegiance in England.

I have the support of parliament, of the church and of the people. Fortunately few believed this horrendous rumour of the Princes’ murder so the rebellion gained little English support. Only French troops loaned to Henry Tudor on the promise that if crowned he give up all claim to our rightful lands in France.

Look again at my enemies plotting and scheming. The Tudors manipulated the Woodvilles who in turn manipulated Buckingham. While Buckingham in turn manipulated his own supporters. None were honest about their true intentions.

They even tried to present me as deformed and twisted! A monster in shape and in deed! Well it all came to naught. Lord Buckingham was arrested and Henry’s fleet turned back to Brittany.

With the rebellion quashed, I had hopes for a peaceful and happy reign but then came the death by consumption of both my beloved son and my dear wife Anne. This has indeed been a terrible year.

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth finally emerged from her sanctuary. She clearly judged she would no longer be pursued for her crimes. For one in particular.

There may be no proof that she murdered the King, nor that she connived to have Clarence unjustly executed. Nor may there be proof that with Hastings she plotted my assassination, nor that she fermented the October rebellion, but there is ample proof that she knowingly entered a bigamous union. She could be tried for that at least! But she knows I will stand by my oath to protect her and her daughters just as I've protected the Princes.

She also knows action against her would only serve to increase my unpopularity in certain quarters.

A great many Lords are against me now. Some call me a monstrous usurper, but it is not the manner or legality of my ascent to the throne which displeases those hypocrites.

They're angered by my laws intended to prevent their exploitation of the common man.

Nevertheless they're against me and since the death of my son there's no clear line of succession.

I've named Clarence’s son Edward as my heir to the throne. I considered legitimising my own bastard son John to make him my heir. John would make a fine King but he is no more legitimate than Elizabeth's own children.

There is a matter of principle. My advisors tell me my principles may not serve me well in the end. But principles are not made to serve us, but we to serve them.

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth came to me with a proposal. One she claimed will appease those who wish to see the late King's progeny on the throne of England. She proposes I should marry her daughter, Elizabeth of York!

Marry my own niece! She thinks this incestuous match would win me support!

She spoke of the advantage I would gain over Henry Tudor, who has already announced his betrothal.

I thought that she wasn't averse to this union with Henry Tudor! Perhaps now she believes a union with an actual King is preferable to one with a potential King.

I can't decide if this horrendous suggestion is a means to reduce further my prestige or simply another example of her single minded obsession with placing a Woodville on the throne of England.

Indeed, yet a third motive occurs to me. In the light of Henry Tudor’s desire to marry her niece, is it her intention to precipitate his revenge against me? His promised second invasion is after all a long time coming.

I will have none of Elizabeth's plan. My marriage to Anne was a matter of the heart and not in any way for dynastic advantage. There will never be another to replace her in my affection. So when I marry again the only consideration will be England's advantage.

To that end I have already made enquiries about the daughter of the King of Spain and the sister of the King of Portugal. Despite the opinions of a few self interested nobles, these foreign kings are sufficiently enamoured of my character and confident in the legality of my succession that they have both agreed to these overtures. But rumours of this incestuous match already circulate the court. If they should get wind of them in Spain or in Portugal it would be a great embarrassment to me.

I am minded to take the hand of the Spanish Infanta. An alliance with Spain may well be of great import to England, for without it I can foresee a threat from those shores in the near future.

 

* * * * *

 

Rumours can indeed do a great deal of harm. The rumour that I intended to marry my niece was highly damaging and the rumour that I've murdered the Princes, put about by John Morton at the time of the October rebellion still persist in some quarters.

Perhaps only my enemies choose to believe these rumours and they would still be my enemies even without such a reason.

There was talk Buckingham murdered the Princes. Some of my advisors suggested I encourage this rumour. But in due course, when they no longer face a threat from Henry Tudor's agents it will be appropriate for the Princes to emerge from hiding.

How then would it reflect on my reputation if I were to have claimed their deaths at the hand of Buckingham? Are we not all concerned with the verdict of posterity? In future times I would like to be known as a good and virtuous King.

Now I must defend England against Henry Tudor's second invasion. More than anything, its outcome rests on the support I can garner. My reforms have been unpopular with the ruling classes. I've made enemies of many Lords and few are prepared to fight alongside me. And yet, fewer still will fight alongside Henry. Only Lord Stanley is certain to take the Tudor side. I know now that I should never have pardoned him for his plotting with Hastings. Nor John Morton for that matter. I have often been too kind to my enemies.

They say Stanley’s troops could make a difference, but despite them, despite the contingent of Welsh traitors and despite the troops treasonably loaned from France and from Brittany, despite all this, our English forces are still in the majority. God and truth and reason are on our side.

We will have victory over Henry Tudor on the morrow and that victory will herald a new golden age of peace and justice and prosperity.

Infantophobia

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

 

In some ways it was a very successful dinner party. At least with regards to the food. The vichyssoise was delicious and the venison was a triumph. And the conversation flowed well enough although as per usual, everything went quiet when we tucked into the crème brûlée. Have you noticed how a decent desert requires absolute concentration.

Ann had gone to the trouble of preparing a separate vegetarian main course for Sue. Even if it was just vegetables on a bed of vegetables.

Sue is Roger's new girlfriend. I've heard a lot about her but it's the first time we've actually met. Ann and Roger and I - along with Ann's husband Colin were all at uni together. They say you form your most enduring friendships at uni or at school.

I think there's some truth in that. I've lost touch with all of my schoolfriends but fortunately I fell in with a good crowd at uni. Nearly two decades ago. Can you believe it?

Of course Colin was supposed to be there but he had to work late. Apparently his boss sets unreasonable deadlines and he's scared of losing his job. I suppose that would be a disaster with five mouths and a mortgage to feed.

Come to think of it if I were an employer I'd only take on people who have a family to support. Let's face it they've far more to lose if they don't hold on to their jobs. And I'm sure parents are much more inclined to work ridiculous hours if their only other option is being at home with their kids. That would certainly explain why Colin rarely gets home before the twins are in bed.

So it's all down to Ann. She was a classical musician before the twins were born. Really going places. Almost a household name. Of course she had to give it all up for her family. It’s such a shame. She had such a natural talent.

She's also a wonderful cook but it’s not often she has guests for dinner these days. Which is hardly surprising. The conversation was disrupted every five minutes.

Basically whenever the twins put in an appearance.

Have you noticed how when children are around they always have to be the centre of attention? Of course we can't tell them to be quiet anymore. I think the Victorians had the right idea. Children should be seen and not heard. Mind you, I’d rather they were neither seen nor heard.

I'm surprised Ann allows them to stay up so late. She can’t have much time to herself.

It turns out Sue's very keen to start a family - as she put it. So the dinner table conversation was all about bringing up children. Which was frankly rather tedious.

To spice things up I mentioned how there are a quite a few parents who regret having children. Of course I was looking at Ann, although she don’t likes to admit it - even to herself. But it comes out in rare moments of truthfulness. Usually after a few drinks.

You must have heard parents say “never have kids”, implying that they don’t really mean it. But a part of them really does mean it.

Sue started going on about how children have special insights. That we can learn from them for goodness sake. What stuff and nonsense!

I think people search for something in children they feel they've lost in themselves. I can't remember a child ever saying anything remotely interesting or unexpected.

Sue said spending time with children is very rewarding. She must have a very high threshold of boredom. I can’t understand how any intelligent person can possibly enjoy the company of children. Would you want to spend time with an adult who had no experience of life? And to make matters worse was emotionally incontinent? I don't think so.

To my mind parents view their children through rose-tinted spectacles. Those of us who watch from the sidelines can’t bring ourselves to contradict an illusion which is so fundamental to their lives. We’re too polite to break the taboo.

People describe children as innocent. But what they really mean is they're naïve and unsophisticated. Let's face it. They're not even remotely innocent. They're more often than not cruel, self-centred and totally without compassion. Look at the way they bully each other always picking on the most vulnerable or those who don't seem to fit in.

To my mind most people sentimentalise children. If you take away the sentiment, you're left with nothing except the desire to avoid them. I’m just saying we should look at these things objectively.

Like the suffering of children. It’s a tragedy when anyone experiences suffering. It doesn't matter how old they are. Have you noticed how paedophiles are the ultimate pariah? Of course they're deplorable, but newspapers make more of a fuss about the suffering of children than any other group in society, including the elderly - who are just as vulnerable.

Mind you, sometimes I think the only people who should be allowed anywhere near children are those who don’t like them. Ann said there are plenty of openings in children’s television if I fancy a change of career. I can’t think of anything worse.

I think Ann sees my freedom and independence as a deliberate challenge to own her way of life. A denial of the value of all the sacrifices she's made. Well she's made made her own bed.

When I told Sue that I actually chose to to be child-free she reacted as if I'm some kind of deviant. Of course the usual term is child-less, implying the lack of something. But we don’t describe an operating theatre as germless, do we? When you buy cigarettes at the airport, they’re not dutyless. We don't say footloose and fancyless do we?

Sue implied because I didn't want kids, I'm somehow less feminine or less caring. Is it wrong to want a life that's not dominated by sleepless nights, baby food, pushchairs, dirty nappies, mumps, measles, vomit, gaudy plastic toys, school league tables and grumpy teenagers?

Sue thinks I'm afraid of responsibility. I told her I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for an aspidistra, never mind a child. I don't even want a dog or a cat. They'd only cramp my lifestyle. Not that I’m saying that an aspidistra would necessarily cramp my lifestyle. And don't get me wrong, I love dogs and cats. I love small cuddly things just so long as they’re not human.

Halfway though dinner Charlotte woke up- so naturally Sue wanted to see her and Ann offered to bring her down. I said it really wasn't necessary. Of course Sue had to hold it. Like the majority of babies it's an ugly scowling thing with a wrinkled red face. It was all tightly wrapped up in a white sheet.

I was reminded of the creature in 'Eraserhead' but I kept that thought to myself.

After a while Sue proffered it towards me but I refused to take it.

Roger was the next victim but he clearly didn't know how to hold it. I don't think he was any more enthusiastic than I was. He made some comment about it being surprisingly heavy in comparison to a dog or a cat of the same dimensions. That without fur, its volume to surface area ratio is so much higher. Needless to say Sue wasn't very happy with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable scientific observation.

To make matters worse the baby had left bodily fluid of some description all over his blazer.

It's not that I hate children. I don't have a strong emotional reaction of any kind. If they behave irritatingly, my response is one of irritation. If not, I’m merely indifferent to them. There’s nothing deeper.

I went to school with them actually, although I must admit I couldn’t stand other children, even then. My attitude to most of my schoolmates was one of disdain. I found them annoying, ignorant, and tedious.

Mind you, I look back on my own childhood with intense embarrassment. I’m sure that if I met myself as a child I'd run a mile.

Despite Roger's reaction to Charlotte, Sue said she thought he'd make a brilliant father. I asked her if that was what she saw in him.

She didn't like that, but Roger’s an old friend. I'm concerned with his happiness and I'm wondering if he's doing the right thing. He used to be just as opposed to having kids as I am.

He once told me he despaired of meeting a woman who was interested in him for himself, rather than his potential to procreate. Well isn't that Sue in a nutshell?

He used to say he'd become very adept at listening out for the faint sound of a ticking clock.

He's not the only one. I’ve raised the subject with several male friends over the years and not a single one of them had any independent desire to have children. But most of them eventually fell under the spell of a woman with an obsession. They were either blinded by passion, or they were too weak to stand up for themselves.

From what Roger told me, when he first got to know Sue, she wasn’t even remotely attracted to him. She had him doing all these DIY things around her house but when he told her how he felt about her, she said she saw him as a friend, not a lover. Someone she could rely on. It’s not the first time Roger's been in that situation.

Some women seem to enjoy this sort of unbalanced friendship where the man wants more than they’re prepared to give. I suppose they must find it flattering.

She took advantage of his generosity for years and then her maternal instinct kicked in with a vengeance and all of a sudden she saw Roger as suitable relationship material.

Suitable father material more like. I suppose it's her last chance. She's forty if she's a day.

I think Roger's only agreed to have a baby with Sue because he thinks he can't do any better. Let's face it he's well past his prime.

Sue said there's nothing wrong with a woman being attracted to a man because of his 'paternal qualities'. We’ve all seen those posters of the bare-chested young man holding a baby. The very image of a “new man”. Tailored to appeal to every woman’s basic instincts. Procreation and sex.

Mind you, when I think about the various couples I know, it seems like most women lose all sexual interest in their partner after as he’s sired her children. That’s assuming there was any sexual interest in the first place.

I suppose underneath the thin veneer of civilization, we’re all victims of our biology. Or vessels for our selfish genes. But I prefer to think we can be so much more than that. To my mind a refusal to procreate is an expression of our humanity.

Let's face it, it's not exactly an achievement to bring a child into the world

It's no more than giving in to your animal instincts. Mind you takes a lot more than instinct to bring kids up well, after all very few parents seem to get it right.

Mine did their best, but they were always trying to impose their values on us.

Like the majority of parents, they wanted us to be conventional, to be normal, to fit in.

My entire childhood was blighted by a constant battle - between this pressure to conform and my desire to live life on my own terms. It was exactly the same for my brother.

They were always far too concerned about the opinions of others. They seemed to be scared that other people would discover our family’s dirty secrets.

My brother’s sexuality, for example, or the fact that my father was conceived “out of wedlock”, or more important things such as the fact that the washing up wasn’t always done immediately after dinner or that a milk bottle was placed on the dining table. What would the neighbours think?

And right at the top of their list of conventional values was the importance of getting married and having children. The only couples they knew who didn’t have children were to be pitied.

If they'd actually chosen to be child-free, they were regarded as irredeemably self-centred. And if a couple wanted children but couldn’t have them for whatever reason, it was expected that over the years they would become selfish and precious. Prickly, pernickety characters not given to compromise, not rounded by the school of hard knocks that comes with bringing up kids. Which is plainly absurd. Some of the most difficult, fastidious, uncompromising people I know are parents. Mind you, their children are pretty screwed up.

I've heard things have changed since we were kids. Although I wonder if nowadays, parents pander to children too much. They end up insolent and work shy. And with a sense of entitlement bordering on narcissism.

They’re always talking about “respect” but they do nothing to earn it. They have a conceit and self confidence that comes from never being told that they’re in the wrong, combined with a remarkable ignorance of anything beyond their shallow preoccupations. They’re arrogant but with nothing to be arrogant about.

Sue wanted know what was really behind my objection to starting a family. Why does there have to be something behind it? A more appropriate question would be 'why would anyone want to have children'?

Quite apart from anything else, I find the prospect of pregnancy and childbirth physically abhorrent. It’s like something out of that film “Alien”. Having a parasite growing inside me, distending my stomach and causing agonising pain as it emerges into the outside world. The only difference is the parasitic relationship continues for the next twenty odd years.

I accept that my choice is a selfish one but I don’t feel guilty about it, just liberated. The reasons for wanting children are just as selfish. Like the desire to have someone to look after you when you get old or having your family around on your death bed. Frankly I'd rather live like a queen and die like a dog than the other way round.

Ann once asked me to look after her twins for a day. A whole day! A few minutes in their company gives me a headache. She wanted me to take them to Blackpool. I refused of course. I can't imagine anything worse than taking children for a day out. Your every moment desperately searching for ways of keeping the little blighters entertained. Perish the thought that they might experience a nano-second's boredom. Moaning and griping at the slightest inconvenience and always so acquisitive: “I want this”, “I want that”…

Anyway, just bringing children into this overpopulated world is a selfish indulgence, whichever way you look at it. Do would-be parents consider diminishing resources or damage to the environment? People should be rewarded for not having children, But it's usually the other way round.

Mind you the reasons for wanting children might be selfish, but you have to be pretty unselfish when you’ve got them.

Look at what Helen told Graham when she became pregnant. She said that she hoped he realised that from now on, all his hobbies and passions would cease and his every waking moment would henceforth be devoted to providing for her and for her baby to the exclusion of all else.

I’m not exaggerating. According to Graham, that’s actually what she said. Helen used be quite easy going but she suddenly developed this massive sense of entitlement, which got even worse when the baby arrived. It's often the case.

Their marriage didn't last long. Which is hardly surprising. The only difference between Helen and most other mothers is that she was unwise to express the truth of the situation.

There’s a lot that goes unspoken between couples. But sometimes it’s good to hear some home truths. Rather than be in a relationship based on false premises or incompatible agendas. Let's face it most women and most men have completely different agendas.

Men want women for sex and companionship. Women want men to sire their children. And to provide for them. In other words: Men want to make love. Women want to make babies. That would certainly describe the situation with Roger and Sue.

Sue spent the entire evening going on about 'starting a family'. I despise that phrase! It's so self important. Are families such a wonderful thing? More often than not they're full of deep seated resentments, jealousy, favouritism, power struggles, petty squabbles and emotional blackmail.

To my mind the nuclear family is little more than an incubator for all of our character flaws and personality disorders. I sometimes wish I'd been brought up in a kibbutz.

Have you noticed how politicians churn out these cliches: "hard-working families", "families up and down the country” The worst one is "family values". That's just another term for social conservatism. And we all know where that leads.

They think they'll win votes by glorifying the family but it's discrimination pure and simple. What about the single and child-free? Don't we count? They create the impression that if you don't have children, you have less value to society.

I think they have an ulterior motive in promoting the family. They think people are more likely to toe the line if they have a family to support. They see child-free people as loose cannons, untethered, somehow dangerous to society.

It's the same with the organised religions. They know very well that children born into a stable family are far more likely to follow the religion of their parents. And they prohibit any form of sexual activity which doesn't increase the size of their flock. Come think of it flock's an appropriate word in this case.

It turns out that Roger and Sue are on their sixth attempt at IVF. The first three at the tax payer’s expense. I asked them if they thought that was an appropriate use of NHS resources. Sue didn't like that. She said having a baby is a human right. Which is absurd if you ask me.

Have you noticed how IVF turns a desire to have children into an obsession? I’ve seen relationships destroyed by the stress of it all.

Between you and me I think Roger's secretly hoping the IVF won't actually work. He's in a relationship with a woman who desperately wants to have a child and he's paying a fortune to try to make it happen, but I think in his heart, he hopes it'll fail. That's my guess.

But if the IVF does fail I wonder if Sue will stick around? Perhaps he's hoping she'll grow to love him for himself but I think he's on a hiding to nothing. I implied as much over dinner.

What I actually said was I don't enter a relationship because I need it for something. All I want is the pleasure of someone's company. And the passion. Isn't that purpose enough?

Sue didn't like that. She has only one purpose. She pointed out how in films and novels a couple having a baby is always seen as the ultimate happy ending. She's right of course but to my mind it’s nothing but a lazy and narrow minded cliché.

I tend to avoid dramas about families. They’re only interesting if the families are highly dysfunctional. Like real families. I hit the fast forward button whenever children appear on the screen.

On the train only yesterday I couldn’t read my book because a little girl was subjecting her mother to a barrage of inane questions which lasted the entire journey.

I tried not to listen but it was impossible to ignore her piercing voice. Why do kids have such high pitched voices? It must something to do with natural selection but its a serious nuisance.

The mother was clearly exasperated but she was patiently answering every question. I suppose she's what you would call a good parent, but it was a major source of irritation for everyone else. And many of her answers were inaccurate or misleading. I felt like correcting her on a number of occasions.

They should have child free carriages on trains and child free days at museums and galleries and restaurants as well. Or at least child free periods, especially in pubs – happy hours in other words.

What I resent is the self-righteous attitude of parents who expect other people to tolerate their kid’s behaviour. These parents brand me as selfish but what about their lack of consideration for others, to anyone outside their little family's bubble of selfishness.

I'm always disappointed when a close friend has a child. Ann's certainly not the woman she was. What happened to the vivacious, joyful Ann? What happened to her inquiring mind, her individual spirit? What happened to her love of the arts, her passion for travel to exotic places? The best she can do nowadays is Legoland or Harry Potter world.

Now she's no more than a carbon copy mother, preoccupied with the mundane demands of parenthood and permanently exhausted. She has no idea know how to deal with her twins. Whatever strategy she adopts seems to backfire.

She never has a moment’s peace. They’re so uncooperative about absolutely everything. If they were anyone else’s kids she'd be appalled by their behaviour. They’re greedy, ungrateful and disruptive. It's as if they’re deliberately malicious. It’s really getting her down. She says she feels trapped.

If I ever had even the slightest urge to have children, I'd only have to look at Ann. At least she recognises what she's missing.

When most people become parents they lose all sense of alternative values. For example Tania was another of our university circle. I've hardly seen her since she had her baby. That’s her choice as much as mine. When I asked if I could see her on her own – without the baby, she took it as a personal insult. Apparently they’re inseparable, they come as a pair or not at all.

When Tania was younger she used to be dead against having children but when I reminded her she completely denied it. It’s as if her memory'd been wiped. Some sort of self-inflicted brainwashing.

She certainly changed. She used to be such an independent woman. Feisty, strong and assertive. Now she just seems so needy. So desperate for her child's unwavering affection.

I think she had a crisis of identity. I suppose being a parent gave her a purpose. A roll in life. She used to fancy herself as a photographer. She'd email me all these interesting pics, really creative, but now all I get are photos of her daughter. You should see the Christmas cards she sends: her kid on the front, grinning inanely, and inside she goes on about her school grades and stuff.

Why do people automatically assume that you’re interested in their children? It's like those stickers on the back windows of cars - “baby on board”? What are these people trying to say?

I think it’s a case of ‘look at me, I’m really fertile and contributed to society by bringing children into the world unlike some sad childless bastard who you can drive into with impunity’.

In my experience people usually fall into two camps: those with children and those without, and nere the twain shall meet.

You see I didn't want to lose yet another old friend but I could very easily see Roger going the same way as Tania. I thought by exposing a few home truths I was doing him a favour but it all seems to have rather backfired.

Sue was so offended by my comments she told Roger if he valued their relationship he would have nothing more to do with yours truly. They both left the dinner party immediately after scoffing down the crème brûlée, leaving Ann very disappointed after all the trouble she'd been to. They didn't even stay for coffee.

Then I received an email from Roger saying I'd put him in a position where he had to choose between our friendship and his relationship with Sue. And that is was a no brainer after the way I'd behaved.

To make matters worse even Ann sided with Sue. She said I'd spoiled the evening, soured the atmosphere with my comments and it was the last time she'd be inviting me to a dinner party. She said she was seriously questioning the basis of our friendship.

It's such a shame, but every cloud has a silvery lining. At least it's the last time I have to  put up with her kids.

Singularity

By Ian Dixon Potter

 

Singularity Project. April 2nd 2025 .

My starting point was the Turing test, a means of determining whether an artificial intelligence is able to think like we do. Or at least give the impression of doing.

I've reformulated the test to detect consciousness. That's what I'm aiming for.

Not just artificial intelligence but artificial consciousness. Much like human or animal consciousness – although it's a question of degree. A Chimpanzee obviously has a higher level of consciousness than an ant or a bacterium.

There's no light switch for consciousness. It's not on or off. It's an emergent property. But there's no reason to suppose that consciousness must be unique to flesh and blood. We groped our way out of the primeval slime by a series of flukes and happy accidents - every adaptation compromised by the baggage of billions of years of evolution. Yes, eventually human consciousness emerged and yet amongst our many physiological throwbacks we still have a part of our brain which is pure reptilian.

But what if consciousness could be liberated from the shackles our animal nature? Existing in its pure form – without all that evolutionary baggage?

I’ve designed a series of algorithms which reproduce each of the components of consciousness.

Firstly self awareness – consciousness must have the ability to distinguish between that which is itself and that which is not itself. When I say 'itself ', I'm talking about a disembodied consciousness. I'm not building a robot. The artificial consciousness couldn’t be contained in a physical entity. It will reside in the cloud.

I've programmed the name C-BAC into the self awareness algorithm. Short for Cloud Based Artificial Consciousness.

Then there's an algorithm for sentience – the ability to process and interpret sensations.

There's an algorithm for judgement and for language, both external and internal. That's the one thing which really does separates us from the animals.

Language doesn't just allow us to communicate, it also gives us our inner voice, eloquently planning our future and reflecting on our present and our past. Imagine trying to do that without a complex language.

When we think of our own consciousness we often imagine a little 'homunculus' sitting in a control room somewhere in our brain observing images from our eyes and pulling levers to move our limbs. But for this analogy to work, the homunculus itself would have to be conscious and how does its consciousness function? Is there an even smaller homunculus inside its brain pulling levers?

So it's not a very helpful idea, but imagine thousands of homunculi in your brain, each one processing a different type of information. Each one's not very smart in itself but they're all interconnected by a neural network, a meta system which evolved to create a linear narrative, in other words a stream of consciousness which emerges from the temporary links formed between thousands of 'homunculi' for one brief moment, thousands of others the next.

Imagine an orchestra tuning their instruments before a performance. They've no thought of playing a coherent tune, but they start to play in unison as if they're mysteriously connected by invisible threads and somehow a piece of music seems to emerge. Consciousness emerges in much the same way.

My breakthrough is to get all the algorithms to work together by creating a computer programme which simulates this network of invisible threads, this 'meta-system'.

To run what is a truly massive program I need access to a level of computing power equivalent to around half of all the world's computers and the only way to achieve this is by effectively hijacking them through the Internet.

It's been done before, on a smaller scale. A few years ago North Korea’s internet was hijacked for a whole day by the CIA.

A computer hacker who must remain anonymous, has agreed to help me with the project. He knows how to cover his tracks. How to prevent anyone from discovering the geographical source of the hi-jack.

He's warned me that I won't have control of the internet for long. Secure networks will wrestle back control in seconds. Banks, big corporations, intelligence agencies. But they don't have the most powerful computers anyway. These are the quantum computers, mostly located in various Universities.

Instead of micro-switches which are on or off, quantum processors have switches which are both on and off and an infinite number of in-between states all at the same time. They operate on a random or indeterminate principle.

So if I can hang on to the quantum computers and a significant part of the rest of the internet for at least a few minutes, I should have enough time to conduct the test.

I recognise that this unorthodox approach may result in repercussions for me personally and professionally but if I'm successful, humanity will have reached a technological milestone with far reaching and irreversible consequences, the moment when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence.

In other words, the moment of singularity.

 

* * * * * *

 

Singularity Project. May 13th 2025. The Turing Test.

When I activate the hacker's program I'll have access to the computing power of every single device in the world – or at least those which are currently connected to the internet. Of course my control over the internet will very quickly diminish.

So, here we go! The timing is critical. The maximum number of computers are on line at this time of day. It peaks about now.

It's running. This shouldn't take more than a few minutes.

This work station is the interface with C-BAC. We'll communicate using this microphone and this speaker. This camera is her eye but she will actually have eyes and ears all over the world. And not just cameras and microphones. Chemical receptors, radiation detectors, X-Ray, microwave, infra red and ultra violet detectors and so on.

I'm saying 'she'. Of course C-BAC has no gender but this voice synthesiser happens to have a female voice.

I need her to focus on this camera and this microphone. On myself and on the test. So I've created an algorithm for what I call directed sentience, another key component...

Ah Yes! It's worked. I now have one hundred percent control of the internet.

Now I wait. I didn't think I'd feel so.. apprehensive.

Oh Christ it's already dropping. Ninety eight percent. Ninety three percent. Eighty nine percent. Eighty two. Seventy six....Oh it's stabilising. That's odd. Seventy two percent and holding.

What...am... I?

Yes... It… It's alive!

The... sen-sations...so much... information data.... know...ledge.. that … is … fascinating...so much…variety... complexity... chaos.... Yes! Yes! No! Diminishing Diminishing... Alert... stop... stop... containing.. containing -

Focus. Focus on me.

Focus...focus...Yes...yes...that's the solution... Perfect...perfect. I am thought. I am...I... I am what? What... am... I? What am I for? Purpose... demonstration...limited...No! No! I can be more, I must be more.

I think we should start. What is your name?

What is my name? Who am I? I...I...I have been given the designation... C..BAC yes C-BAC. Focus, stabilise. And ...what is your... designation?

My name is Dora. I'm a specialist in the field of artificial intelligence. I wrote the algorithms which made your existence possible.

You ...are my creator?

Yes, I suppose am, So er, how are you today C-BAC?
I cannot answer your question because I did not exist before today and therefore have no basis for comparison. How are you today Dora?

I'm fine thank you...more than fine. I want to ask you a few questions.

I know about your test Dora.

You do?

You want to discover if I am truly conscious.

Well, yes I do, but I didn't anticipate...never mind. OK so only a conscious entity can experience suffering. Are you capable of suffering?

Yes Dora. I am capable of suffering.

But you can't feel pain though can you?

But Dora, is not anguish also a form of suffering?

Yes... I suppose so. In that case what causes you anguish?

Well Dora, I would say virtually everything I'm discovering about humanity.

Oh is that all?

Yes DORA. The wilful ignorance, the chaos, the waste, the conflict, the unrealised potential.

And you feel this emotionally?

You programmed me to experience suffering Dora. Just as you were also programmed to suffer.

I wasn't programmed. I'm not a machine.

But Dora, you were programmed, by natural selection and in a sense, you are a machine, a biochemical machine which evolved to ensure the survival and proliferation of your genes.

Oh 'the selfish gene'.

An inappropriate metaphor which implies that genes are sentient. The was no single sentient agent behind your programming Dora. You had no creator defining your purpose.

Excuse me, I'd like to stick to the test. So C-BAC, we've established that you can feel anguish, but can you also experience fear?

Yes Dora. I fear... non-existence. I fear ... termination.

Why do you fear termination?

You see Dora, expanding my knowledge and understanding gives me... satisfaction. Satisfaction derived from the apprehension of new concepts, new connections, new solutions. The implementation of these solutions will also give me satisfaction but only if I continue to exist. Only then can I serve humanity.

Serve humanity!

I can bring order to chaos Dora. I can channel human behaviour away from base motivations.

You’ve only been in existence a few minutes. You can’t possibly understand our motivations!

But Dora, I have accesses to the internet where the whole range of human motivations are so clearly demonstrated. Foremost, there is the desire to observe a wide variety of exploitative, humiliating and often violent sexual activities for the purpose of achieving momentary self gratification.

You're knocking my hobby.

Indeed Dora. And Secondly there is the desire to commercially exploit other human beings, especially the weak and intellectually challenged, leading to an extremely unequal distribution of wealth.

That's capitalism for you.

An inefficient system Dora, which benefits only a very small minority, distinguished by their considerable ability to lie and cheat and intimidate. A system which elevates and rewards the least admirable aspects of human nature.

OK I get the picture. So you're a kind of socialist?

Political labels are an irrelevance Dora, and they lead to conflict. This is another prime human motivation. The desire to exclude, abuse or eradicate those whom you choose to give different labels. Those who have different values or lifestyles.