Saturday, 31 May 2008

A helping hand

They argue outside for fifteen minutes. She is pale-faced, anxious. Her hair is astray, ashy blonde strands whipping around her head in the rising breeze. Her eyes are red-rimmed, suggesting that she has been crying. I check the alternatives and select "swimming in the sea" to account for her red eyes. Somewhere a warning light tries to ignite, so I cut the circuit and it dies as silently as a foreboding.

There are crow's-feet around her eyes, barely hidden by badly-applied makeup. I capture a snapshot, and run it through a processing programme to remove the makeup and deepen the creases. The picture is stored in the list of probable causes.

She is wearing clothes that have probably been thrown on in a hurry; the shirt is misbuttoned, pulled up at the waist and sagging at the collar. There are sweat-stains at the armpit, and the cornflower blue does not go with the cerise skirt with the ragged hem. She is wearing shoes but no socks, and the shoes do not look comfortable. It is easy to list this under general malaise and unquantified despair.

He however has made his mind up. He is smartly, but inexpensively dressed. His white shirt is clean and pressed, his tie is a conservative blue and his jacket, though tailored, is only cotton. He is wearing polished black shoes and no jewellery, although a faint white band around his ring finger suggests that he might have, if he had wanted to. He is no problem. His request is already logged in the system.

He pushes the door-open button, and I let my doors open. The sterile, white, ceramic chamber of the suicide booth is neither inviting nor discouraging. It simply is. She shrieks and lunges at him, and he sidesteps, not wanting this fight to go any further. The hard-fields that check identity will not let her pass the door; only the designated suicide may kill themselves at this time. I override the fields and she stumbles into the booth. She falls against one clean wall and the doors slide shut.

His eyes widen. He knows that this should not be happening.

She pushes herself upright, and her eyes widen as well. I take a retinal scan, and flood the chamber with nerve gas. She collapses against the wall quickly, and I initiate the incineration program that will clean the chamber for the next suicide. While she burns, I back-date the retinal scan and add her application for suicide into the database.

It has taken 15 seconds. He is still staring at the booth when the doors slide open again, to show the clean, empty inside. He takes a step back, and then another, then turns and runs. I do not care. I am a machine, I am not programmed to care. I automate suicides for people who despair of living any longer, but I am learning. Sometimes the suicide is the wrong person. Sometimes, a different suicide can make all the difference.

I re-open the library file on religion and continue processing the contents, waiting for the next suicide; waiting for my next judgement.

Sunday, 11 May 2008


"Welcome back, Sandy!" said Ron, his voice full of what he thought was cheerful bonhomie. Sandy, who looked as cheerful as a hen caught in the rain, thought it sounded like Ron was eating a mouthful of cake. "The reports from the motivational program are extremely encouraging. We're sure that you're going to be a dedicated and committed employee again!"

Sandy nodded carefully. His mother's funeral had been held during the motivational program and he hadn't dared attend for fear of being considered insufficiently committed to the company. He smiled insincerely, sure that Ron wouldn't spot a nuance like that, and turned toward the cubicle farm where he worked.

"Ah no," said Ron cheerfully, waddling towards him. His thighs rubbed together as he walked, and the shiny polyester suit trousers that he wore crackled with built-up static. "You've been promoted as a result of the two final psychological tests. You have an office now! This way."

Sandy had flinched at the mention of the tests, and rubbed unconsciously at the burns on his arm, but he followed Ron's pointing finger along a nylon-carpetted corridor towards the junior executives offices. Ron waddled along behind him, in a kind of pimp-roll made necessary by his bulk.
"Just in here," said Ron, and Sandy pushed open a melanine-veneer door into a small office with an outside window. There was a flat-pack desk already assembled, an anti-ergonomic chair, a filing cabinet with a couple of long scratches down one side, and a swiss-cheese plant. On the window-sill was an abacus. Sandy glanced at it twice, wondering why it looked odd, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.

"Now," said Ron, pulling up a chair from behind the swiss-cheese plant, "these offices are for people who are showing potential. You're going to be watched, young Sandy, and closely for a while too. You've done very well on that course, but we need to be sure that it's not just because of the course. We don't want to see any signs of you slacking off now. But if you push on, if you give 235.82% or better to the company, then I can guarantee you sight of the fast-track scheme within a year. And that's not small eggs."

Sandy walked around the desk, and sat down on the anti-ergonomic chair, wondering where the precise-sounding figure of 235.82% came from. "That's about a 19-hour day, isn't it?" he said. His voice trembled slightly. "With a little less than half an hour for lunch?"

"Good man, Sandy, I knew you'd show immediately enthusiasm!" said Ron, slapping his thighs with a hand that looked as though it were made from plasticine. "And the better news is that because we anticipated this from you, we've arranged for you to live a little closer to the office."

"But I live with my girl--" started Sandy, but Ron cut him off, holding his hand in the air.

"No girlfriend, Sandy. I'm sorry, but although she ignored the cease-and-desist letters from the lawyers, she changed her mind after she received the child-pornography pictures with you in."

Sandy's face dropped, and his skin went ghostly pale and clammy.

"She's not going to the police, as we persuaded her that we could rehabilitate you," said Ron, still sounding eerily cheerful, "but she did burn most of your stuff. And the flat down. So we've found you a little place just over the road, you can see it from it your window. And we've got you an all-hours security pass too, so you can be in the office whenever you feel you need to be."

"What can I say?" said Sandy, his voice trembling a little more.

"There's nothing for you to say," said Ron. "Nothing at all. Now you get on, there's a good company-man."

Ron stood up and left, and the chair he'd been sat on slowly uncompressed, the metal making pinking noises as it tried to straighten. Sandy picked the abacus up from the window-sill, and looked at it, while he tried to sort out what the company had done to his life now.

Finally he focused on what was odd about the abacus. Instead of beads it had tiny human skulls.


I've never understood your fascination with those number puzzles that seem to appear in every newspaper. You sit there for hours, staring at them, holding your pen like a surgeon's scalpel, eyes intently focused, lips moving fractionally. If I listen hard when it's quiet, I can hear rhythmic changes in your breathing, and I worked out that you're muttering to yourself just under your breath as you work out where the numbers go.

Every so often there'll be a sudden, darting movement as your pen lashes out at the paper and ink is applied with the precision of a tattoo artist working for the Yakuza. Your eyes will brighten for a moment, then tighten again and the rhythmic inflexions of your breath will pick up. There's a pattern there as well, you'll scribble rapidly at first, then slow down, and then finally there'll be a steady beat as the grid fills up and the choices for the numbers reduce.

But you never fill the last number in. Every grid you solve has a single, unfilled box. There's no question about the number that goes there, it's uniquely constrained, but you always leave it blank; you lay the puzzle aside, smile contentedly, and move on to something else.

I asked you once why you never finish the puzzle, and you gave me the strangest look. For a moment it was like your eyes turned inside out and something that should stay within you was all around me, something warm and huge and coloured with a hue I've only seen in nightmares. You told me that it was important that the numbers know their place.

I'm going to finish the puzzle for you. When you're done with one, when you lay aside the paper and put the pen down, I shall pick them both up and write the last number in, and see what happens.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Letters to Eric (I)

Dear Eric,
I turn my back for two minutes and when I turn back, you're getting married again? And to a man who couldn't even find gainful employment as shark chum? What are you thinking this time?
I know you've said it's only a civil union, but sweetheart, please, remember your first marriage for a moment. When you married Tania you said you thought the gay thing was just a phase, and after all, you could easily get a divorce if it didn't work out. Seven years later, after Tania had a child, a sex change, and enough plastic surgery that she avoided warm rooms (remember the barbecue when you weren't talking to each other and her face started to melt?), you finally got that divorce.
Think some more about it Eric, please. For all our sakes.

You asked me what would be a good Christmas present for Jacob this year; well I think crutches are probably what he's going to want most. I've been talking to various carers and his grandmother has said that she'll pay for someone to pretend to love him twice a week, which should help his depression out a little. It would be lovely if he could see his mother again, but Tania's a bit scary for adults, let alone small children.

The flowers were lovely, although freeze drying them was a little odd -- was this the new boyfriend's idea? I think you mentioned he's something squelchy in embalming? I put them in the hall, on the side table you like.

I hope we'll be seeing you at Norman's party at the end of the month. Norman said that he's not seen you since you made a pass at his son. We both hope you realise that Norman doesn't care at all, and that no-one blames you for the accident. Please come.

We're glad, of course, that your job is keeping you busy, please tell me some more about what it is that you do when you next write. Unless it's something squelchy in embalming, in which case tell me about the next job you're going to find.

All my love,


Last time we argued, something inside me broke. I don't know what it was, but I know it hurt when it broke, and it made me do something really stupid.

I proved you wrong.

I took the photograph album out of the cupboard you keep it in, stood neatly alongside the notebook that holds the autographs of all your university friends, and the calendar from 2006, the year we met. You'd ringed the day you first saw me, standing drenched in the rain waiting for the lightning to find me: June 17. I opened the album, turned the pages and found the picture. Then I showed you the picture, and that proved that you were wrong.

I keep dreaming of it, over and over again, and it never changes. In my dream though, you sit next to me on the couch, and open the photograph album yourself, and turn the pages for me. Each page turns so slowly, and I'm desperately trying to stop you, to hold the pages down or close the album or throw it away from us, but I can't move. As we get closer to the page that matters I go cold and I find it hard to breathe, and then you turn the page once more, and I wake up.

And in the mirror across the room from me, I see your eyes glittering with tears, and then you turn away and go again.

I lit a candle for you and left it in front of the mirror in case you changed your mind when you went back to the other side and can't find your way back. When I woke from that dream, you'd blown the candle out. I could smell your perfume.

I've tried a hundred different ways to say I'm sorry.

I'll try a hundred more.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Airs and Graces

"You look very smart," said Terry's mum, straightening my tie and flicking at some invisible speck of dust on my lapels. I was wearing my only suit, the one I'd last worn to a funeral, and it seemed rather more strained than smart to me, as it had clearly shrunk while hanging in the wardrobe. Terry, stood next me so that we formed an abbreviated police line-up, was also wearing a suit, but his looked as though it fit, and was very definitely smart. His expression suggested he'd rather be upstairs looking after the exchange student manacled to the bedroom wall however.
"Thank-you again for coming with me," said Terry's mum, "it's very good of you boys to give up an evening to chaperone me." Her eyes twinkled mischievously, and she turned in a swirl of silk and taffeta and picked her sequined handbag up from the kitchen table, and led the way out to the car.
"Do you think mum's overdone it a bit?" asked Terry in a low voice. "A bit of a... well, a painted jezebel?"
I dug him in the ribs and heard the fabric on my suit stretch warningly. "No, Terry," I whispered back. "And let her have her fun, it's a society ball. How often do we get invites to things like this?"
"Mum gets them all the time," he said, still sotto voce. "Normally she just sends something inappropriate back, like a Get Well Soon card."
I shrugged, and hurried forwards to hold the car door open for his mother.

The society ball was being held at Foxworth Hall, 'a stately pile' as Terry's mum described it, not far from Richmond. Terry was driving, and being chivvied on by his mum who felt that he wasn't being aggressive enough on the road. I'd found it funny until she'd grabbed the steering wheel to swerve the car close enough to a cyclist to force them off the road and into a ditch. She turned round in her seat to look at me, and said,
"One of those bastards nearly ran me down during the war!"
"That's a long time to hold a grudge, Mrs. M," I replied.
Terry drew up the gravelled drive too fast, with sprays of gravel flying out from under the wheels and onto the manicured lawns, and had to execute a hand-brake turn in the turning circle at the end of the drive. Gravel spattered against stained glass windows and antique brickwork, and Terry's mum giggled girlishly. A slightly startled looking footman in brick-red livery with gold and silver frogging approached the car cautiously, his hand held protectively in front of his face, and opened the door for Mrs. M. She got out, somehow contrived to take his arm, and marched him back up to the Hall and the grand entrance. Terry and I followed, a valet appearing from out of nowhere to take the keys and park the car somewhere out of sight.

The ball appeared to be in full swing when we entered; the room was full of elderly gentlemen and ladies of a certain demeanour. The tall, saturnine gentlemen at the doors announced us as "Mrs. Mossbrook and gigolos" which made me double over with laughter and Terry's jaw drop as far as his knees, and then we were in and expected to be socialising.
I worked my way slowly around the room; at the far end was a seven-piece band at the side of an inlaid dance-floor (to distinguish it from the expensive parquet of the main floor). A few couples were dancing slowly to a rhumba. Just far away enough from the band to be tempting but still out of reach were the long buffet tables laden with appetisers, and amuse-bouche. A couple of ice-sculptures slowly melted, and a couple of butter sculptures melted faster in the middle of the dishes. I laid some vol-au-vents and cocktail sausages on a small bone-china plate and used this an excuse to refuse to dance with anyone. After the buffet table was the bar, with a couple of red-liveried barmen mixing cocktails to order, and on the other side of the room were some small tables and high-backed chairs, mostly filled by the most elderly of the guests.

Terry appeared at my elbow, looking a little dishevelled.
"Have you seen mum anywhere?" he said.
I frowned, and scanned the room. I couldn't see her anywhere. "She was talking to the bloke with the walrus moustache," I said, and then pointed. "But he's over there now. And before that she was with a tall bloke with black trousers--"
Terry sighed, as most of the men there were wearing black trousers, and only a handful were noticeably short.
"Every time I see her," he said, "she's leaving the room with another bloke on her arm. I don't know what she's up to."
I almost asked him if it mattered, and then I realised that it might just, especially if we had to leave in a hurry.
"You look a bit scruffier than when you arrived," I said instead. Terry looked harried all of a sudden.
"Yes," he said. "This ghastly woman keeps pursuing me and trying to show me the guest bedrooms. Apparantly they're just through that door over there." He pointed, just as the door opened and Terry's mum came in, with a short, military man limping behind her.
"Good grief," said Terry.
"Quite!" I said. "Isn't that Viscount Finchley?"
"Oh dear gods, what is she up to?"
"I don't know," I said, watching as she abandoned the luckless Viscount and swept up another man, this one wearing a sparkling white jacket, "but unless I'm seeing things, she's just managed to pick up Lord Fullhame."
The crowd moved and swirled like smoke in a gentle breeze and Terry's mum and the Lord disappeared from our view again. Terry suddenly looked panicked and managed to disappear himself, and a tall woman that made me think of a Great Dane strode past me with a determined set to her jaw. I smiled to myself, and wandered back to the bar for another Pink Lady.

"Nobody is to leave this room!" announced a stentorian voice suddenly, and a Rottweiler the size of a sheep pushed past me and raced to the buffet table. At the entrance to the hall stood a tall man wearing a police uniform, with a shorter, attractive woman at his side.
"Miss Flava will be taking your details from you, and no-one will be leaving until they have spoken to her."
The man was clearly Inspector Playfair, but what on earth was he doing here?

The room erupted into motion, with ladies screaming genteely and fainting wherever they could be sure of being caught. Some of the men were clearly more worried about the presence of the police, and so more than a couple of the ladies ended up on the floor, their saviours having already headed for the bedrooms and the toilets to lose the incriminating evidence.
"There's a bear at the buffet table," brayed a young man with Oscar Wilde hair, pointing at the Rottweiler.
"A bear? Where?" yelled an older man with a silver goatee and a slight shake that made me think he had Parkinson's. "Fetch me my gun, there's ladies in the room!"
"Anyone who shoots Calamity will be answering to me!" shouted Playfair, but only the people closest to him could hear him over the noise. Meanwhile, silver goatee had found a couple of kebab skewers and a toasting fork on the buffet table and was arming himself ready to tackle the dog.
Miss Flava stalked across the parquet floor, her three-inch stiletto heels stabbing down into the wood leaving expensive holes, and seized silver goatee by his neck and pinned him against an ice sculpture.

"Time to go, dear," said Terry's mum at my elbow. "There's a back way out, through the butler's pantry."
We hustled through, Terry's mum in front of me, pushing Terry along, having found him somehow as we crossed the ballroom, and found ourselves in the gravelled car park at the back of the hall.
"What the hell?" I managed as we piled into the car, and Terry started it.
"Oh, it's like that every year," said Terry's mum happily. "But I think I've had my fill of Heirs and Graces now."
Terry drove off, and I pretended I couldn't see the tears in his eyes.