“Explain to us again,” Sevan asked Ay-ttho, as they walked in front of the Presidential palace. “What is our job? What are we supposed to do?”
“This is the last time, Sevan,” Ay-ttho sighed with impatience. “We are representatives. You represent the mining colonies. I represent the corporation security clones and Tori is the representative for Republic security clones.”
“But who chose us, and what are we supposed to do?”
“Xocliw chose us.”
“Shouldn’t those we represent choose us?”
“You are so naïve, Sevan. If you allowed clones to choose their own representatives, those wishing to be chosen would resort to popularist measures in order to get elected, rather than representing the best interests of the clones. It is much better to select individuals best suited for the task.”
“How are we best suited?”
“Don’t question things, Sevan. At the moment, we each inhabit luxurious apartments and have all we could need.”
“As representative of the concession mining clones, does that mean I can visit the Doomed Planet?”
“I’m sure it does,” said Ay-ttho. “We should organise such a trip right away.”
“I heard Xocliw has made Nadio speaker of the Senate.”
“That is true.”
“And Scotmax a senator?”
“Oi, you lot!” Tori shouted at a group resting on a wall outside the front of the palace. “Don’t you have homes to go to? Be off with you, loitering around here.”
“He’s taking his job seriously, isn’t he?” Sevan whispered to Ay-ttho.
“I know. He’s not even responsible for palace security.”
“Are you on holiday?” Tori continued. “What are you doing hanging around here? You there? What is your job?”
“I construct the interiors for apartments,” the shocked individual replied without questioning Tori’s authority.
“Then where are your tools? What are you doing walking around here in your best clothes? You? What do you do?”
“I mend shoes,” said the second individual.
“You mend shoes? Does that still happen here on Future?”
“Then why aren’t you doing it today? Why are you leading this lot around the streets?”
“To wear out their shoes and make more business for myself. No, seriously, we have come to the palace today to share in Xocliw’s triumph.”
“Xocliw’s triumph?” Ay-ttho blurted out. “The population of Future turn out to celebrate Xocliw’s triumph over Chuba and yet you were here celebrating Chuba’s presidency following the death of President Man, weren’t you? Any excuse for a holiday, Chuba’s triumph, Xocliw’s triumph, go back to your homes.”
“Away with you!” shouted Tori.
The group went away without protest.
“You know it is Lupercalia,” Ay-ttho warned Tori.
“Oh yes, any excuse to get drunk and fornicate.”
“What’s Lupercalia?” asked Sevan.
“It’s a festival. They call it the festival of the real treasure, a bit like Binge on The Doomed Planet. It’s an excuse for the population to get off their marbles on fushy and pish.”
“Tell me more about this festival.”
“No one knows the true origins, but they have celebrated it for 2,500 solar cycles, at least. According to legend, there was a President of another galaxy who ordered his co-begotton’s offspring to be ejected into deep space.”
“His co-begotton had promised not to reproduce.”
“Do you want to hear the story or not?”
“Of course, sorry, go on.”
“The guard charged with ejecting them into deep space felt sorry for them and placed them in a long-term hibernation unit. The unit travelled across space until it landed here on Future. The offspring were the first founders of the Republic.”
“You mean they reproduced with each other?”
“They must have.”
“Exactly. Anyway, legend has it that the offspring developed the technology to return to the galaxy of their origins and kill the President that had ordered their deaths. They celebrate Lupercalia every year to mark the founding of the Republic.”
“But wouldn’t the President have already been dead by the time they made it back to the old galaxy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they discovered a wormhole or something. The population of Future are partnered at random and attempt to reproduce.”
“I’m so glad I’m asexual.”
“I don’t care whether it is Lupercalia,” said Tori. “If I find any of them on the palace grounds, I’ll drive them away. They use Xocliw’s victory as an excuse to celebrate while we are all her prisoners.”
“Shh, someone might hear you,” said Sevan, looking around.
Xocliw was walking with her latest partner, Calpurnio. Allecram, her adviser, was trailing behind them with Scotmax and her partner Nadio, Scotmax’s begetter, Yor, Xocliw’s offspring Oiluj, his partner, Enyaw, and High Priest Callahan.
“Calpurnio!” Xocliw shouted.
“She speaks,” Calpurnio mumbled to himself.
“Get out of the way, can’t you see Allecram is trying to get through?”
“Yes, President?” asked Allecram, not aware that he was trying to get through.
“Touch Calpurnio as you pass, will you?” said Xocliw. “They say it will cure the sterile if they touch the fertile during Lupercalia.”
“Your wish is my command,” said Allecram.
“President?” called High Priest Callahan.
“Who is calling me? What is it?”
“President Xocliw, I must urge caution. Our intelligence suggests this is not a time to take risks.”
“You and your superstitious mumbo jumbo, Callahan. Come on, let us go.”
“Do you support her presidency?” Enyaw spoke quietly to Scotmax.
“Not particularly, but the population seems satisfied. Listen to the cheering in the streets.”
“I’m not asking about them. I’m asking about you.”
“I don’t expect you to support his presidency. Xocliw killed your begetter, after all.”
“She may have killed my begetter but my partner is Xocliw’s offspring and my loyalty is to him “
“Is it? Listen to those cries. It had better be with your partner because his co-begetter is very popular.”
“Why her, Scotmax? Why not you or I? She is no more special than we are.”
“Be careful, Enyaw. That talk is treasonous.”
“Discuss the matter with Nadio, that’s all I ask.”
“Allecram? I want you to find me a new guard,” Xocliw asked her adviser. “I don’t trust Enyaw. She is young and full of ideas. I don’t like anyone who thinks too much. They are dangerous.”
“You don’t need to fear her. She is loyal to Oiluj.”
“I don’t fear her, but she has taken to spending too much time with Scotmax and Scotmax reads too much. She observes everything and sees through our deeds. She never smiles, she’s too restless. She is dangerous. Come away with me and tell me what you think of her.”
Xocliw led Allecram away from the group.
“Nadio, can I have a word?” asked Scotmax.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Have you noticed anything strange about Xocliw?”
“You’ve been with her as much as I have.”
“You don’t think she has some illness?”
“If anyone is ill, it is us.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Did you know that when they inaugurated Xocliw as President, she first pretended to refuse it?”
“She play acted as if she was not worthy and begged the crowds’ forgiveness. They lapped it up. Allecram it was who was offering the presidency in a piece of theatre you would never believe.”
“But the crowd did?”
“Oh yes, they loved it.”
“Scotmax!” said Enyaw, approaching. “We must get to know each other better, come to our apartments to eat.”
“Yes, or you to ours.”
“Let me know when you are free.”
Nadio had already begun to walk back to the palace. Yor joined her.
“Is everything okay, Nadio?” he asked.
“We have suffered many trials, Yor. But I was never so worried as I am now.”
“I have been having terrible dreams. I think something bad is about to happen.”
“We certainly live in strange times and nothing is certain. Ah, here is the entrance to my apartment. Take care, Nadio, don’t worry too much.”
Yor entered his apartment, leaving Nadio to wait for Scotmax.
“What’s wrong Nadio?” she asked as she approached. “What were you talking to my begetter about?”
“Only the strange dreams I’ve been having.”
“You worry too much, Nadio. We have a good life here. We should enjoy it while we can. You look pale, as pale as a thug can look. What will be will be, Nadio “
“You know that on the next rotation, the Republic senate is going to ratify Xocliw’s presidency?”
“Why should that worry me?”
“Why do you were that weapon at your side, Scotmax?”
“Why shouldn’t I? I’m not afraid of Xocliw’s tyranny.”
“You should be.”
“Why should Xocliw be a tyrant? She may think herself a tronqak and the population of the Republic mere cukids, but that makes her no different from any other president.”
“You plan and scheme. I know you, Scotmax.”
“That’s as maybe but…”
“Shhh, someone is coming.”
“It’s Effeek’o, Nadio, look. Effeek’o, how are you? I haven’t seen you since Herse. How are your patients?”
“Well, I hope. And how are you both? Are you well?”
“As well as expected. What brings you to Future?”
“They have invited me as a special adviser to the senate, but between you and me, I had an ulterior motive.”
“Oh, yes? And what might that be?”
“The cause for which we all fought on Angetanar. Now is our opportunity. Have you spoken to Enyaw? We must make an alliance.”
“I doubt that should be too difficult, but perhaps you should speak with her yourself.”
“I will do that.”
“Good. Let’s catch up later. If you’ll excuse me, I need to find Sevan.”
Effeek’o, Nadio and Scotmax said their goodbyes and Scotmax went off to find Sevan
“Ah! There you are,” she said when she eventually found him. “Can I confide in you?”
“Of course you can.”
“I’m worried about Xocliw and what might happen when the senate finally ratifies her presidency.”
“What do you mean?”
“I worry it may tempt her to abuse her power, like her co-begotton and her begetter and her co-begetter.”
“I see what you mean, quite a lot of family history there. Be careful what you say, though. Look, Enyaw is coming this way and there are others with her.”
“I can’t see. Do you recognise them?”
“No, can’t say as I do. No, wait, I can see now that Nadio is with them, and Effeek’o from Angetanar. Plus some others I don’t recognise.”
“Hello Scotmax, I hope we are not disturbing you.”
“Not at all. I was just visiting my friend, Sevan. You know Sevan?”
“Of course, we have seen each other around the palace.”
“Do I know all your friends here?” asked Scotmax.
“Yes, Nadio and Effeek’o, obviously. Do you know Di’Shon and Bernard? They are both senators sympathetic to our cause.”
“I am familiar with your work, very pleased to meet you. Are you sure it is safe, meeting like this?”
“Yes, do not worry. Lupercalia preoccupies everyone.”
“Ah, yes, the real treasure. That should keep everyone busy for a while. What about my begetter, Yor? Should we include him in our plans?”
“Yes we should,” said Nadio.
“Of course,” said Effeek’o. “I know he was a staunch supporter of Kirkland, but Matthews’ betrayal has turned him against the dynasty. He will be with us, for sure “
“His reputation would lend our cause a great deal of credibility,” said Di’Shon.
“I doubt he will join a cause started by others,” said Enyaw.
“Especially not if he knows you’re involved,” agreed Scotmax. “You were our captor, ”
“Not I, but my begetter,” said Enyaw.
“Nobody is to be touched except Xocliw, is that correct?” asked Nadio.
“Good point,” said Scotmax. “Allecram is very loyal and may become an obstacle. We should consider including him in our plans.”
“Let us be assassins but not butchers,” urged Enyaw. “If only we could kill Xocliw’s nature rather than Xocliw herself. Our operation must be clinical. This is not time for hacks. We need to be considered purgers, not murderers, and as for Allecram, don’t worry about him. Without Xocliw he is completely impotent.”
Marian Keyes has just released Again, Rachel, which is the sequel to Rachel’s Holidayso it seemed timely to post my review of the first book now.
Meet Rachel Walsh. She has a pair of size 8 feet and such a fondness for recreational drugs that her family has forked out the cash for a spell in Cloisters – Dublin’s answer to the Betty Ford Clinic. She’s only agreed to her incarceration because she’s heard that rehab is wall-to-wall jacuzzis, gymnasiums and rock stars going tepid turkey – and it’s about time she had a holiday.But what Rachel doesn’t count on are the toe-curling embarrassments heaped on her by family and group therapy, the lack of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – and missing Luke, her ex. What kind of a new start in life is this?
Keyes has the ability to approach serious topics with both insight and a humour which enables them to be digested with ease. The passages are so believable they seem autobiographical and so it is no surprise to discover that Keyes suffered from alcoholism and was affected by clinical depression, culminating in a suicide attempt and subsequent rehabilitation in 1995 at the Rutland Centre in Dublin. As part of her therapy, she began writing short stories and was encouraged to write a full length novel, which she did. Watermelon was published the same year. She spoke very candidly about her addiction in an Imagine documentary for the BBC.
More than 35 million copies of her novels have been sold, and her works have been translated into 33 languages. Although many of her novels are known as comedies, they revolve around dark themes often drawn from Keyes’s own experiences, including domestic violence, drug abuse, mental illness, divorce and alcoholism. Keyes considers herself a feminist, and has chosen to reflect feminist issues in many of her books.
Rachel’s Holiday, deals with its serious subject matter in a lighthearted way and it is really a romantic comedy at heart. In between the wit and the plot, Keyes reveals important details about addiction which are also educational such as the fact that addicts often enter their addiction because they are avoiding conflict and indulge in other substances or activities instead.
I would highly recommend reading this book, it is entertaining, educational and informative and she does well to tease out what might otherwise be a more predictable ending. If you love romantic comedies you will love Rachel’s Holiday
The podcast, according to Amazon, finds Lee and his friend Neil taking their first (often clumsy) steps on the road to Nirvana. From picking which type of Buddhism to follow, to contemplating what a woodland creature would say to you if you asked it the time; Lee and Neil explore the principles and practices of Buddhism in a way that spiritual practice has never been explored before… Possibly for very good reason.
It came about because they had both read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and because the pandemic had brought to a halt all their work. The pandemic brought about an explosion of podcasts and this was one of my favourites, a light-hearted look at Buddhism by two friends just starting out on their spiritual journey.
The Power of Now has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 30 foreign languages.
The basic idea behind the book is that you are not your mind and to find the real truth of existence, you have to free yourself from your mind. We consider ourselves as separate from the world around us and enlightenment is simply being at one with existence. Buddha said that life is suffering and that enlightenment is an end to this suffering because we free ourselves from the illusion that we are separate from the universe which surrounds us. Tolle says that enlightenment, or the truth, is already within us, we simply need to open the box.
The book is essentially a series of questions and answers from the many lectures and workshops that Tolle has given over the years and does not subscribe specifically to Buddhism or any other religion but quotes the Bible and the Quoran revealing the true meaning behind misunderstood texts.
I would highly recommend The Power of Now, even if you are not actively seeking spiritual enlightenment. I believe that it is beneficial for anyone to read this book and am confident that anyone who opens their mind to what Tolle is saying will find themselves living a calmer happier life.
The man looked at the door out of which mock cockney had just left.
“We need to be careful,” he said. “Better make this the last one.”
“I’m surprised you have to ask me that,” said the man, turning back to his drink before gazing at the enormous stone fireplace. “You know, the First English Civil War started here.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. He didn’t know.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” the man continued. “If the streets looked much the same then as they do now. I mean the poverty, the shit, the disease.”
Jack shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it like that.
“It’s always been a bit of a shithole,” he said.
“Ah, but even you have to admit that things are worse now than they have been for millennia. Tribal warfare. Mass killings. Mass starvation. And yet some things seem to withstand any circumstances.” The man picked up his pint. “Cheers.”
Jack chinked glasses with the man and took a large gulp. Experience had taught him that anything could happen at any moment to deprive him of the rest of his beer and the sooner he got it down him, the better.
“So,” said the man, wiping his grey beard with the back of his hand. “Before I went to the bar, you were arming yourself with knives and listening for the sound of vehicles coming up the track.”
“I don’t understand why you want me to go over all this. You’ve already heard it from security.”
“Let’s just say I have a personal interest,” the man sipped his beer. “If you don’t want to tell me, then don’t.”
“Sorry,” said Jack, feeling ungrateful.
“It’s OK,” the man smiled. “I know how you feel.”
“It was the diary,” said Jack. “There I was, my pockets full of knives, ready to defend myself against, I don’t know what. I was looking at the diary, and then I saw, between two of the pages, like a bookmark, there was a business card. It was for Dr Olivia Jones. I assumed this was the person to whom the author had requested the diary be delivered. It wasn’t the name that caught my eye, it was the organisation she worked for. Homeland Security.”
Jack looked for signs that the old man was impressed, but he wasn’t. He didn’t look in the slightest bit surprised.
“The card said that this woman was the chief scientist in the food security branch of Homeland Security.” Jack continued. “A woman like this would have connections. I wasn’t safe where I was, but if I could get to her and deliver this diary, then maybe this could earn me some favour. Get me into a Government compound or something like that.”
The man raised his eyebrows in approval of Jack’s plan.
“I risked staying the night and leaving early the next morning. The next day was cloudy and mild. I carried what I could from my hoard. Mainly the knives, but I took the seeds and two pans, which I tied to my bag, some small tools, and the remains of the vegetables. I headed east, straight across the fields. I hadn’t got very far when I heard the noise of a truck further down the valley. I hid behind a hedge, through which I had a view to the village where I had dumped the truck I had stolen. I could see the visitors stop at the bend in the road and heard shouting as they went to investigate the truck. As soon as they began pointing up the valley, I knew I had to get to a more sheltered position.
“Although hidden from them now, I was visible from the top of the track and so had to half run, half stoop across the fields to the far side of the valley, being careful to stay behind the hedge at all times. I was only halfway across the valley floor when I heard their truck restart. My best bet was to make it as far as the river and find a hiding place on the riverbank until they had gone.
“If I ascended the hill on the eastern side of the valley, they would spot me easily. I ran as quickly as I could, stooping lower as the height of the hedge shrank the nearer I got to the river. All the time, the sound of the truck grew louder and louder, and I feared they would soon draw level and see me. As soon as I was close enough to the river, I leapt over the edge of the bank, hoping I wouldn’t land straight in the water.
“As luck would have it, the bank made a shallow descent to the water’s edge, and I could crouch out of sight of the track. I felt the morning dew soaking into my trousers, and the soft mud squeeze between my fingers as I listened to the truck pull to a standstill and the unintelligible shouts as they discovered the abandoned washing machine and fridge and made their way through the woods to search for the rest of their booty.
“I thought about trying to wade across the river there and then, but feared that one of them would have been left by the truck as a lookout and might spot me. So I stayed there, as still as I could, listening to the shouts, wafted on the wind, sometimes louder, sometimes quieter. The occasional clanking of metal betrayed the transfer of my hoard, their hoard, to their truck. I felt very uncomfortable, but was too scared to move. It wasn’t until I heard their truck start up again and drive down the track that I found the courage to poke my head over the edge of the river bank. They had gone, but I wasn’t about to go back and see what they had taken.
“It had already soaked me to the skin, so I lifted my bag above my head and waded across the river, which is still not much more than a stream this far up the valley. Then began climbing the other side of the valley, shivering in my wet clothes. I walked as quickly as I could, trying to keep warm. About halfway up the hill, I reached a dry stone wall from where I had a good view of the valley and could see the truck descending all the way to the junction. I hurried up the remaining part of the hill until reaching the summit. I could see the whole of the valley from which I had just fled and, only a few paces further on, the beginnings of the next valley. I decided not to descend but to follow the ridge around the back of the valley where I knew it would join the moor.”
“Where were you heading?” The man asked.
“At that point, I just knew that if I headed for Leeds, there would be a garrison of the Homeland Security and maybe there I could use the diary to bluff my way into a little safety. I knew Leeds was east of where I was, so I just needed to head towards the rising sun and away from the setting sun. It was cloudy, but I could see a brighter patch of cloud around what must have been the sun, so I skirted the top of the valley and headed east.”
“When I was younger, I made many a hike across that moor,” said the man. “I remember one weekend, it was raining so much, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was going upwards, under my waterproofs.”
Jack smiled at the man’s reminiscence.
“When was that?” he asked.
“When I was young. Long before the collapse.”
“But here we are,” said Jack. “Sitting in a bar, drinking beer. It’s not complete anarchy.”
“That’s right.” said the old man. “This community was clever enough to protect itself. You know, during the first civil war, this city was a walled city. It was besieged with the King’s men camped outside. After the second civil war, it became a walled city again, and it looks after its own so that its own protect it from what’s outside those walls. No doubt it’s clever enough to profit from what’s outside those walls, but it’s clever enough to make sure it has everything it needs within the walls. Its geographical location helps, but it was its foresight, which was its saviour.”
Jack nodded in agreement while the man drank his beer.
“Of course that does not mean it’s not dangerous here within the walls, but it’s less dangerous than outside, as you know.”
Jack nodded some more.
“Did you encounter much in the way of trouble on the way here?”
“The first stage of the journey across the moors was fine. I followed the rising sun in the mornings and away from the setting sun in the afternoon. The sunsets were truly spectacular. It never ceases to amaze me how nature seems to produce such beauty on days that humanity is tearing itself apart. I slept in the shelter of bushes and didn’t see anyone until after a couple of days, when I knew I would have to turn south and head down a valley towards Leeds. I skirted around the villages I passed, not wanting to risk contact with humans until I was so close to Leeds that I couldn’t avoid it.
“My supplies were getting low and the long distances I was covering each day made me hungry. On top of this, I’d been drinking stream water wherever I could, and I must have picked a bad one cause I’d got the shits. I had no choice but to keep drinking the water. Otherwise, I would dehydrate, but I was stopping every five minutes to go for a poo behind a tree or a bush.”
“I know. I must have stunk like a tramp.”
“We all stink like tramps.”
Jack conceded the point by taking another sip of beer.
“And did you evade detection until Leeds?” asked the man.
“More or less,” said Jack. “People spotted me near a couple of villages, but I was always too far away, and nobody bothered to come after me.”
“Don’t you think someone in a village would have been willing to help you?”
“I wasn’t willing to take the risk.”
The old man knew that feeling of mistrust and didn’t question his young companion.
“The combination of the shits and my constant hunger and weakness made that journey down Nidderdale seem to last forever,” Jack continued. “But eventually I made it to a built-up area where people were avoiding me. I had expected someone to pursue me, but the first person I encountered turned on their heels and ran. Maybe I looked like the walking dead but, as I grew more confident in my safety the more people seemed to shrink away behind closed doors and dirty, torn net curtains. I had the address of the garrison, but I didn’t know where it was. Silence met my door knocking attempts. Even the houses where I had spotted inhabitants at the window were refusing to open their doors. One resident, an old man, stayed at the window. He listened to me and then pointed in the direction I was going.
“Broken solar panels littered almost every rooftop, and black clouds hovered above, threatening rain. Someone had stolen all the road signs long ago. I reached a wide, gently flowing river crossed by a large stone bridge. The bridge seemed in good condition, and I made sure the coast was clear before running across as fast as I could and sheltering behind a small wall until I felt confident to continue past an abandoned building site. With each new junction I came to, I followed my instinct and took the road my hunch suggested. The roads became busier, and the people didn’t shy away from me anymore. They didn’t even seem to notice me.
“The sun was going down, and I felt spots of rain. I reached a square where the homeless masses were already bedding down for the night. I didn’t ask anyone for directions there and carried on. On the next corner was a church. It was full of people singing. I passed a fire station, the doors were missing, and it seemed empty. On the corner of the next junction, there was another church. Again it was full.”
“People need something to believe in,” the man chipped in.
“Their god doesn’t fill their bellies.”
“On the contrary, the communities help each other.”
“Okay,” Jack was prepared to agree to disagree. “When I started walking back into the country, I realised I had only walked through a small town or a large village and not Leeds at all. The road was badly potholed, but it must have been a main road in the past, so I was confident I was on the right route. I didn’t want to enter the city at night, and the rain was getting heavier, so I tried to find shelter. I was also struggling to contain the contents of my bowels. The further I got from the town, the fewer people there were until I was on my own again. I spied a shed. At least it used to be a shed. It had half collapsed into a crumbling dry stone wall but still provided shelter. I crawled in out of the rain but straight away realised I would have to crawl out again and find somewhere to evacuate my bowels.”
“You’re quite a poet with these big words of yours,” the old man laughed.
“There were some trees in the field,” Jack continued. “So I picked one of them, squatting behind it with my trousers round my ankles. Almost straight away, a torrent of pungent liquid cascaded from my arse into the roots. I wondered whether the tree was grateful for this deposit of fertiliser.”
The man almost choked on his pint.
“Have you ever considered being a ” he chuckled. “You have a way with words.”
Jack ignored the interjection.
“My arse was sore and, pulling up a clump of grass, I wiped it with care. Pulling up my trousers, I could see the stains on my boxer shorts. I hadn’t had a decent wash in some days, and my clothes hadn’t been washed for a much longer period. I must have looked like a tramp, which is why nobody in the town had paid attention to me. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, and if my plan to use the diary to get into the garrison failed, then I had no backup plan.
“The next morning the sun was trying to squeeze through the grey clouds which covered the sky. I grabbed my things and pressed on with a new found enthusiasm. I was sure to make it to the garrison before the day was out and they would decide my fate. What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that soldiers guarded the city with large semi-automatic weapons. I could see the roadblock from some distance and rested while I contemplated my course of action. Marching up to the soldiers, waving the diary at them and demanding to be taken to the garrison seemed optimistic, and yet I struggled to find a better alternative. I decided I would bite the bullet and go for it. What did I have to lose? I walked up to the two soldiers blocking the road. ‘Stop. Who goes there?’ One of them shouted. ‘I’m on my way to the garrison to see Dr Olivia Jones,’ I said with as much confidence as I could muster.
“The two soldiers eyed me up and down, wondering what this tramp could want with one of the most famous scientists in the country. ‘What do you want with Dr Jones?’ one soldier asked. ‘I have something for her,’ I said. ‘What is it?’ asked the guard. ‘I’m afraid it’s for her eyes only,’ I said. ‘How do we know it’s not a bomb?’ said the guard. ‘You can search me,’ I said, offering him my bag. He looked through the stuff in my bag, flicked through the diary a little, and then returned my stuff to me. ‘I see nothing there for Dr Jones,’ he said. ‘It’s there.’ I said, pulling it back out of my bag and flicking through to the page where Dr Jones’s father requested the bearer be given safe passage. ‘Her father requested I take it to her in person.’ I showed him the page, and he read it carefully, then said: ‘Wait here.’ He went to take the diary with him, but I wouldn’t let go.
“The soldier walked into a tent, and a few moments later he returned and asked me to follow him, he led me to an armoured personnel carrier, told me to get in and then told the driver to take me ‘to base’, I hoped that was the garrison. They locked me in the back, which was devoid of windows, so I didn’t know where I was being driven, but it couldn’t have been more than about five miles. When we stopped, I could hear the muffled sound of the driver talking to someone and the metallic clank of a gate being pulled open before the vehicle started moving again, this time for what must have been only a few hundred metres. It was the driver who opened the back door and beckoned me out into the sunlight.
“I stepped out into what looked like a car park within a walled compound. ‘This way,’ the driver said, gesticulating for me to follow him. I obeyed and was led into a nearby building with a waiting room in the reception. I was told to take a seat while the driver muttered something to the soldier behind the reception desk. The receptionist eyed me up and down, nodded to the driver who left, and then picked up a phone.
“He muttered a few words before replacing the receiver, not interested in either me or what I was carrying. ‘Do you think I might use the toilet?’ I asked, and the receptionist nodded to a door, which I walked to as quickly as I could without running. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat on a proper toilet. My boxer shorts were in such a poor state I binned them. I washed as best as I could and dried myself on the cotton towel, then re-dressed before returning to the waiting room under the suspicious glances of the receptionist.
“After about half an hour, there were no clocks in the reception. An officer, I could tell by her uniform, came in through a door I was facing and approached me. ‘Mr…” she said, extending a hand for me to shake. “Hughes, Jack Hughes,” I said. ‘Ah, a fellow countryman?’ She asked, her strong accent betraying her Welsh upbringing. ‘Fraid not,’ I said. ‘My great-grandfather was Welsh,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ said the officer, disappointed. ‘Did you know there used to be a singer called Jack Hughes?’ I shook my head. The officer looked even more disappointed. Not a good start. ‘Follow me.’ I followed her through a door which led to a corridor and then through another door, which led into a small room with a table and two chairs.
“She nodded for me to enter, then followed me in, closing the door behind her. ‘Please take a seat,’ she said, and I followed the instruction, sitting on the far side of the table while she seated herself opposite me. ‘I understand that you have something you wish to deliver to Dr Jones. May I see it?’ I took out the diary and showed it to her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, flicking through the pages. ‘I’ll make sure she gets it.’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, taking the diary back. ‘Her father was insistent I deliver it in person.’ ‘Her father?’ the officer raised her eyebrows. ‘When was this?’ ‘About a month ago.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Out West.’ The officer thought about this for a moment, weighing up the information. ‘Her father will be very upset if I don’t deliver it in person,’ I said.
“It was a gamble, but it seemed to work. ‘Yes, well,’ the officer said. ‘That will not be possible. Dr Jones is no longer at this facility.’ ‘Where is she?’ ‘That’s classified.’ ‘But if you know where she is, tell me. It’s very important I get this document to her.’ The officer sighed. ‘We have a transport going East tomorrow. I can put you on it, but it’s at your own risk. We’ve had three transports attacked in the last month.’ I nodded. ‘OK then,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you where you can sleep and eat, but we will have to confine you to those areas. All other areas of the base require additional clearance.’ ‘That’s fine,’ I said, delighted at the prospect of a bed and some food. Maybe I could have a shower too. The officer looked me up and down. ‘Would you like me to arrange for some clean clothes?’ ‘Yes please,’ I said. ‘Very well then,’ the officer rose from her chair and opened the door.
“I followed her back into the corridor where a soldier was waiting. ‘Walker, here, will show you to your room, give you some clean clothes and will collect you and take you to the mess when it is time to eat.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. I followed Walker down the corridor, around the corner to another much longer one where, at the end, he let me through another door to yet a hall lined with doors on either side.
“He stopped at the first, unlocked it, and opened the door. ‘Here you are, sir,’ He said, gesturing for me to step inside. I did as he suggested and found the room to be no larger than a boxroom with a bed, a sink, and a shower box in the corner. On the bed was a towel and a set of clothes. ‘They should fit,’ said Walker. ‘I will lock the door, you know, for security. I’ll come and get you at mealtime.’ I thanked him and listened to him lock the door before stripping off and getting into the shower.
“I couldn’t seem to get the water hot, but I was just thankful to have running water and a bar of very basic-looking soap. Having dried myself, I tried on the clothes, a khaki T-shirt, white starched hemp boxer shorts, khaki wool socks and a pair of camouflage trousers. Clean clothes felt good against my skin. I felt almost human again.
“Confined to the room, with no window to stare out of. The only window was a small one about two metres off the ground. I began reading the diary. It seemed like a mundane account of a gardener. I couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in reading it or why it was so important that this Smith guy have it delivered to his daughter. From my point of view, reading it helped pass the time until Walker came back and unlocked the door to take me to eat. I followed him to the end of the corridor to a mess hall where many soldiers were collecting food given to them on tin trays, or already eating.
“A multitude of eyes followed me as Walker led me to the serving counter. I collected a tin tray and some cutlery and proceeded along the counter until I was facing a soldier in kitchen whites. He looked first to Walker, who nodded, before spooning a large dollop of what I can only describe as slop, onto my tray. ‘Stew,’ said Walker, ‘It tastes better than it looks.’ A little further along stood another soldier in kitchen whites. He dolloped a healthy serving of what looked like a form of mashed potato. Last on the serving counter were rows of tin cups filled with water. I added one of these to my tray and followed Walker to a table that none of the other soldiers had yet occupied. ‘Eat here,’ said Walker. ‘I’ll be back to you later. Don’t talk to anyone.’ With that, he left me alone with my piles of slop. I didn’t agree with Walker’s assertion that the stew tasted better than it looked, but this was my first proper meal for as long as I could remember, so I wasn’t about to let the taste put me off.
“It didn’t take me long to eat the lot, and as I did, I noticed other soldiers seemed to snigger at me. They pretended not to be looking when I glanced their way, but I was the butt of some joke or other. I tried to keep my head down and not attract attention. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Walker or his superiors and miss the chance to get on that transport tomorrow. What I wanted didn’t seem to come into it. A soldier sat down in front of me and said: ‘I know who you are.’ I couldn’t be 100% sure but I think it was the same person as that man who came up to us earlier.”
The old man looked at the door the mock cockney had left through but didn’t seem too worried.
“Carry on,” he said.
“Well, I tried to ignore him. I didn’t want to get into trouble, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. ‘Aren’t you going to ask how I know who you are? Come on, didn’t your mother tell you it’s rude to send people to Coventry?’ I mean, Coventry. What the hell has Coventry got to do with anything?”
“It means ignoring someone. It dates back to the first civil war. Few people use it nowadays.”
Jack acknowledged the trivia while taking the opportunity for another sip of beer.
“I tried to ignore him for as long as I could,” Jack continued. “But he wouldn’t give up. He kept asking me to guess how he knew me. Eventually, I said: ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude. But I’ve been told not to talk to anyone. I don’t want to get into trouble.’ The man laughed. ‘You’re already in trouble, matey. You’re up to your neck in trouble, you’re just too dumb to realise it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Why are you here?’ the man asked. ‘I don’t think I should tell you that. Is this a test? You’ve been sent to test me, haven’t you? Well, I’ll not tell you anything. You should leave if you don’t want me to be rude to you because I’m not talking to you.’ The man laughed again. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter why you think you’re here because that isn’t the real reason you are here.’ I looked at his smirking face for a while and then gave in. ‘OK, so why am I here?’ He laughed again. He was annoying me. ‘You’ll find out soon enough. You’ll find out.’ I dismissed him as mad and tried not to make eye contact.
“Walker saved me. He marched up to the table and scowled at the man. ‘Off with you, Taylor,’ he said, sending Taylor scurrying away to the nearest vacant place. ‘Don’t listen to a word he says,’ Walker warned me. ‘He’s mad.’ I nodded my understanding. ‘Come on,’ Walker continued. ‘I’ll tell you where to leave that.’ I got up, took my tray and followed him to a hatch in the wall where he told me to deposit it. ‘I will take you back to your room,’ he said, and I followed him out of the mess hall back down the corridor to my tiny room where I was glad to lie on a proper bed, no matter how lumpy the horsehair mattress.
“Before long I had fallen asleep and did not wake until Walker unlocked the door and handed me a tray with a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread and a tin cup of water. ‘I’ve saved you a trip to the mess hall,’ Walker said. ‘Get some rest, I’ll be waking you early in the morning.’ The soup was more of a watery stew made with the meat of an origin I could not pinpoint. The bread was hard.
“Despite sleeping for most of the afternoon, the weeks of sleeping rough had taken their toll, and I had no problem with falling asleep again and did not wake until Walker opened the door. ‘Time to go,’ said Walker. ‘Get dressed.’ There were two soldiers, even bigger than Walker, standing behind him in the corridor. As I got dressed, I realised that my old clothes and my bag with the diary inside were missing. ‘Where’s my stuff?’ I asked. ‘Sent for cleaning,’ said Walker. ‘But the diary?’ ‘Safe,’ he said. I didn’t know whether that meant it was safe or it was in the safe. ‘Time to go,’ he repeated and, judging by the look on the two lumps who stood behind him, it would not have been a good idea to argue.
“They led me outside to a waiting armoured personnel carrier, and Walker handed me a khaki jacket, for which I was grateful as it was cold. The back of the vehicle was already almost full of soldiers with the same attire as mine. They seemed to be trying to avoid my glances as I climbed in with them. One of the big guys with Walker slammed the back door shut, and moments later, the engine started. ‘Do you know where we are heading?’ I asked the soldier next to me, but he ignored me. I looked around at my fellow passengers, but all of them were avoiding my stare. They maintained the silence for what seemed like an hour until the vehicle ground to a halt and a man I hadn’t seen before opened the back door. He was holding a rifle. He gestured for us to get out, and we all obeyed.
“As soon as I stepped out of the back of the APC, I could see that we were on a farm of some sort. I could see fields of crops, a barn and I could see that large security fences surrounded the property. The man with the rifle signalled for us to line up and I saw that there were some other men carrying rifles stationed a small distance from us. They ordered us to load the APC with sacks from the barn, and I wondered how we were all going to fit back in again with all these sacks of grain.
“My fears were answered as soon as the grain was loaded and the APC started up and drove towards the entrance gate, leaving us all standing facing the man with the rifle. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Shut up!’ he bellowed. And gestured for us to walk towards a shed where more men with guns were waiting. As they passed the shed, a guard handed each man a mattock and led them towards a field that looked fallow.
“As I reached the shed, I tried to make eye contact with one man. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Shut up!’ came the shouted response. ‘It’s just that…’ I persisted, but before I could finish, the man nearest me had hit me square in the mouth with the butt of his rifle, knocking me to the ground. ‘We’ve got a talker,’ he shouted to the man who seemed in charge, before bending down towards me. I could smell his foul breath as he spoke. ‘Say one more word,’ he said. ‘And see what happens to the rest of your teeth.’ I got up, took my mattock, and followed the rest of the men into the field.
“The rest of the morning, they made us dig trenches. My hands were accustomed to manual work, but blisters were forming. At midday, we could sit at the edge of the field and were each handed a lump of stale bread, a chunk of mouldy cheese and a tin cup of water. When I thought the guards weren’t watching, I turned to the person next to me. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘Shhh,’ he warned me, looking straight ahead. ‘But I thought you were soldiers?’ I asked. He laughed and then pretended he was just coughing. One guard looked over with suspicion. ‘You’d better learn to keep your mouth shut,’ my neighbour warned me, concentrating on eating his meal. I looked at the other men. They were all looking straight ahead at the ground in front of them, stuffing their meagre rations into their mouths. What the hell had I got myself into? I thought this book had been my passport to easy street and instead I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
“It’s not the book’s fault,” the old man commented.
“I know,” said Jack. “But if I hadn’t found the bloody thing, I’d have never have gone to Leeds.”
“And you’d be doing what instead?” asked the old man.
“Who knows,” said Jack. “Who knows what might have been. I wouldn’t have been sitting here now, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that they worked for us like dogs. We’d just had time to eat our mouldy food before they forced us back into the field to work until the sun went down. Then they marched us to a large shed where they gave us a similar stew of unidentifiable meat that I had eaten at the barracks and more of the stale bread. They gave us each a towel, a block of soap and showed us to the showers, which were cold. The showers were next to the dormitory, where we all slept on bunk beds. They gave me a bottom bunk, thank God.”
“I don’t think he’s listening.”
“It didn’t feel like it that night. Although, the strange thing is that, no matter how bad the food tasted, it was still better than what I’d been feeding myself the previous weeks. Something was reassuring about being looked after. Even though the work was hard, the food tasteless, the shower cold and the bed uncomfortable, it was still a bed and still food that we could rely on. We knew where the next meal was coming from.”
“So why didn’t you stay?” the old man joked.
“Because I hadn’t chosen to be there,” said Jack. “We were slaves, and there didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it, and nobody was talking about it. I didn’t know what to do. I showered and put my boxer shorts back on. My clothes were covered in mud. So I just hung them over the end of the bed, hoping the mud would have dried by the morning. It was a chilly night, but the bed had a wool blanket on it. I got into bed because that’s what everyone else was doing. I’d just got comfortable when a guard switched off the lights and bolted the door. My mouth still thronged from the blow that morning, and I just lay in the darkness contemplating my situation. It couldn’t be much more than 7 pm, but I’d been up since 6 am, and the work had been physical. I didn’t expect to have very much difficulty in falling asleep, and sure enough, before long, I snored and rolled over to my side.
“The next thing I knew, I was being woken by bright lights and the sound of a gong. I sat up and saw that my fellow prisoners were pulling on their clothes, so I followed suit. With only one set of socks, I slipped into them and pulled on my mud-encrusted trousers, causing chunks of caked mud to fall to the floor. ‘You’ll clean that up later,’ barked a guard. I didn’t argue. I just followed the others out to the area where we had eaten the previous night, a row of trellis tables under a dirty green canvas awning.
“Breakfast was the lumpiest and least tasty porridge I’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. However, I knew that this would be the last thing before bread and cheese at midday and, guessing by the not yet risen sun, it was not long after six. I tried to keep up with the others who, I assumed, had been doing this for longer than I and knew when it was time to move and where to go. I also noticed that there were prisoners who had cooked the breakfast and were now clearing the bowls away, I followed the rest of them, back to the shed where another prisoner handed out the mattocks, I wondered why the prisoners hadn’t used the mattocks in revolt, they made formidable weapons. Then I looked around at the number and distribution of guards and the high fences and realised any form of rebellion would be pointless. The odds were stacked against us. Almost too much so.
“Then I looked again, and I realised the guards stationed around the fence were not looking at us at all. They were looking outwards, beyond the fence. The guards were not here to stop us from escaping, not all of them, anyway.
“Neither was the fence. The guards and the fence were here to stop what was out there from coming in. The starving masses. It then occurred to me I might have leapt from the fire into the frying pan, but that I might not be as bad off as I imagined. But yes, I still did not want to stay. Under these circumstances. Without choice. I took my mattock and headed out into the field where we had stopped work the night before. It wasn’t at all warm, but the sun was shining, and the heavy work of digging the trenches soon warmed us up. I know that parts for tractors and machinery are almost impossible to get now and the biodiesel to run them almost as scarce, but a decent horse and a man who knew how to operate a plough could have done this work in a fraction of the time, but I guess that even horses must be difficult to come by these days. I suppose this was how the Government forces sustained themselves, via a system of fortified farmsteads using slave labour.
“At least I was being fed, though I wasn’t sure how long my socks would survive. I’d noticed two men washing theirs in the shower, but couldn’t imagine they’d have time to dry overnight. Maybe they had a secret supply of spares. My toilet situation was getting better regarding frequency. I think the cheese helped. The toilets on the farm were the giant pit variety over which someone had erected a platform so that the faeces fell into the pit and someone must then cover them over when it was full. This pit looked like it might be close to capacity. Throughout the morning, I mused on the pros and cons of escape.
“At that moment, the chances of success didn’t seem very great and the prospects of what I might do if I survived an escape were as uncertain. I watched the sun rising in the sky trying to work out when it was midday and time for our mouldy bread and cheese. The morning seemed to last forever, but then a guard blew a whistle, and we all rested by the side of what now felt like an enormous field, and it was. It hadn’t occurred to me before the scale of this farm. The guards must outweigh the prisoners to keep vigilance on a property of this magnitude.
“I wondered what the guards ate as I picked off two green furry lumps from both my bread and my cheese. I looked around at my colleagues. As usual, all of them were avoiding eye contact. Before we had finished our lunch, there was some kind of commotion on the far side of the farm. Guards were running and shouting at each other. Then shots were fired. Some guards were pointing their rifles through the fences and firing at something that must have been approaching. We couldn’t see because the fence was on a brow of a hill and the guards were firing down at whatever was approaching, but before long we heard engines. Two guards pointed their rifles at us while the others ran to assist their colleagues, but none of our company looked like they had the slightest inclination of making a run for it.
“The sounds of the engines grew louder, and the firing of the guards became more rapid. We were all transfixed on what was about to unravel in front of us. A truck with metal plates welded onto the front of the cab reared over the brow of the hill, crashing into the security fence, bringing the fence down and grinding to a halt in the soft mud of the nearest field. The fire from the guards was ferocious, but there was a similar quantity of fire being returned from the truck or somewhere not far behind. The excitement of the truck penetrating the fence had made me jump, but I could see now that my colleagues were becoming nervous and restless. I couldn’t discern the source of their discomfort.
“Though a gunfight unsettles most people, this was a group for whom I had imagined it would take a great deal more to scare them than shots fired on the far side of a hillside. Their discomfort didn’t seem to be triggered by the gunfire, it was more the presence of the truck that unsettled them. Could it be that whatever was in that truck was worse than the enslavement they had been experiencing here? I examined their faces, and they seemed terrified by whatever was in that truck. The only thing stopping them from fleeing were the two guards, who looked as scared as the prisoners did. We all watched the gunfight develop on the far side of the hill.
“The more we watched, the more it looked like the intruders were getting the upper hand. My colleagues were becoming more nervous, and one of them made a run for it, but he hadn’t moved more than a few metres before a rifle shot to the back brought him down. No-one went to his help. I looked at the guard who had fired the shot. He looked younger than me and more scared than the prisoner he had just murdered. We all sat where we were. I made sure I finished all my cheese and bread. I was not sure where my next meal would come from. We watched as, one by one, the guards on the other side of the field fell.
“Then we saw them, the people who had come, either from the truck, or whatever was behind the truck. They came over the brow of the hill wearing some kind of armour, and they shot the guards, one by one. They entered the compound. I looked at the faces of our own guards. They looked petrified, and once the interlopers had entered the compound, they ran, rifles in hand. And once the guards ran, the prisoners ran but not away from the guards towards their freedom as you might expect but towards the guards, to the far side of the farm.
“Whatever had come through the fence was worse than slavery so, although I hesitated for a moment, I too ran after the others to the far side of the farm and, as I had just realised, some armoured personnel carriers. The guards ran straight to the vehicles and into the front, starting the engines almost straight away. Some of my fellow prisoners had reached the vehicles too and were yanking open the back doors, trying to climb in. This didn’t concern the guards much who reversed the APCs’ back, running over two prisoners.
“The other prisoners paid little attention to their fallen colleagues either, running after as the APCs sped up over the fallen prisoners a second time. By the time I arrived, the APCs were already well on their way to the entrance gates, which they just smashed through, ripping them off their hinges. We followed a little way behind and ran through the open gap, turning left, away from the gun battle, which continued to the right.
“I don’t know if the prisoners had any idea where they were heading or if they even cared. I followed them whether or not they wanted me to. They cut across fields, stumbling in the mud, as did I, and none of us dared look back to see what was happening to our captors or whether we were being pursued. We were running downhill towards the bottom of what could be described as a valley. In the dip was a small woodland, and I followed the others into what felt like the relative safety of the trees. I didn’t know what I would do next.
“The whole diary thing hadn’t worked out very well, and I didn’t have a Plan B. The others had stopped for a rest on some fallen trees in the centre of the woodland, and I joined them. They eyed me with suspicion as I sat on one of the tree trunks. We sat in silence for a while, catching our breaths. After a while, I broke the silence. ‘What now?’ I asked. All eyes turned to me. “You can do whatever you want, mate,” one of them said. He was a skinny man with eyes, which seemed to bulge out of his head.
“The men seemed to know each other. I was the interloper as the newest addition to the pack. ‘How do we know you’re not one of them?’ the man with bulgy eyes said? Did they imagine I was some kind of spy? ‘Did you not see that guard hit me in the face?’ I asked. ‘That could have been all part of the deception,’ said Bulgy Eyes. My goodness, what had happened to these people to make them so paranoid? ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘You go your way, and I’ll go mine.’ ‘That’s what a spy would say,’ said Bulgy Eyes. I could not win.
“They whispered among themselves, and I sat where I was, a mere spectator of their affairs. They moved as one, heading through the woodland, looking back to see whether I would follow. I sat where I was, watching them leave. I’d taken my chances alone before I could take my chances again. I watched them disappear into the trees, and almost all of them had gone when the last of the party stopped. He was the fattest of the group and had a kind face. He looked at me and beckoned before turning and following his colleagues into the wood. I rose and followed him. What else was I to do? I caught up with the group at the edge of the wood where they had stopped to survey the land.
“The sound of shooting from the farm had stopped, and I wondered whether they might now turn their attention to us. From the edge of the woodland, we could see that the edges of this shallow valley were lined with other farms, surrounded by large security fences and guarded by men with guns. We could see that some guards were taking an interest in what was happening at their neighbour’s farm, but there were no obvious signs that they were concerned for themselves. I think the fact that the guards were distracted by what was happening on top of the hill gave the former prisoners confidence that they could travel along the floor of the valley undetected.
“They were following a small stream alongside which grew some trees so that the fugitives could move with a reasonable assurance that no-one would not spot them. One by one, the men started dashing from tree to tree and, when all had left the wood, I followed them, dashing from tree to tree myself, imitating those I was following. Now and then, I observed whether the guards on the farms on the hillsides were taking an interest in us, but their attention seemed to be focussed on the activities on the hill from where we had just escaped. They did not seem to be interested in the movements of a bunch of fugitives, even though, given their vantage points, they must have known where we were.
“I took care to follow the others at a small distance and, as much as possible, to keep out of sight of the guard towers which bordered the farms, not that they were interested. We were heading downstream and the further we went, the marshier the land became. The trees thinned, and we seemed to pass the extent of the fortified farms. We were approaching what appeared to be a large estuary. I guessed it must have been the Humber.
“My fellow fugitives appeared to be familiar with their surroundings and turned right to follow a track through the marsh long before they reached the water’s edge. The path soon led to drier land, and they continued to follow it along the bank of the estuary. Although I was warm with the exercise, I realised I had left my jacket behind and worried about where we might spend the night. For now, the sun was on my back, but I knew that as soon as it fell below the horizon, the temperature would drop. Looking ahead, I saw that most of my fellow fugitives were in the same boat having abandoned their belongings in a rush to escape the farm. Soon I would need to do another poo. My bowels were much better than they had been because of all the cheese and I could just about get away with going twice a day, but all this movement was speeding up the process.
“The group stopped for a rest, and I could see that there was a settlement not far in the distance. I may have been getting paranoid, but I was sure that the group had been discussing me as I approached. They stopped talking and turned to look at me as I sat down. ‘It’s too late now anyway,’ said the fat one with the kind face. ‘He can just keep going. Find his own way,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘Are you talking about me?’ I asked, stating the obvious, somewhat. ‘This is where we part company,’ said Bulgy eyes. ‘What did I ever do to you?’ I asked him. ‘Nothing.’ ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You’ve done nothing for me, so why should I do anything for you?’ I had no answer to this, but I felt I had to say something so I said: ‘We should all be helping each other.’ This did not have the effect I had hoped for. ‘Why should we?’ he snarled. ‘Why the fuck should we help each other? One more mouth to feed is one share less for me. We don’t need you. You’re extra baggage.’ No-one else seemed willing to take part in the debate. They seemed indifferent whether or not I went.
“Fatty was the only one who looked uncomfortable. ‘Let’s put it to the vote,’ I gambled. ‘No, let’s not,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘This isn’t a fucking democracy.’ I persisted. ‘Who thinks I should go with you? Raise your hand now.’ Only Fatty raised his hand and then only half-heartedly. ‘Who thinks you shouldn’t come?’ said Bulgy Eyes and raised his own hand high into the air. None of the others even reacted, but just stared in front of them. ‘That’s settled then,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘Bye-bye.’ ‘But it was one vote each,’ I protested. ‘Like I said,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘It’s not a democracy. ‘He got up to leave, and the others followed suit. They all headed off, except Fatty, who lingered a while. ‘We’re going to Freetown,’ he said when the others had left. ‘There’s a boat in the next village. Hang around the village, and I’ll see if I can change their minds.’ ‘Thanks,’ I said and watched him leave.
“I let them get a head start on me before setting off myself. With the muddy bank of the estuary on my left, I followed the others at a much greater distance this time, and before long, arrived at a reasonably sized village with an old Norman church. Or was it Anglo Saxon? I could never remember these things. As with most villages I’d passed through or near in the last few weeks, this one looked deserted, but it hadn’t been raided because, as far as I could tell, they had burnt none of the houses down.
“The church door was closed. No worshippers here. I headed down in the estuary’s direction, thinking that’s where any boats would be found. Freetown sounded like a good idea. I’d heard about it, but wasn’t sure it existed. I thought I’d like to see this mythical city guarded by its own residents. Find out whether it grew half of its food within the city walls and almost all of its fruit. It seemed too good to be true, and I’d heard a lot of stories since the collapse that had turned out to be false.”
“Now you know,” said the man.
“Yes, now I know,” said Jack. “Sometimes it’s OK to dream, I suppose.”
“So how did you get on this boat?” asked the man.
“That’s the thing,” said Jack. “When I reached the water, there was no boat. I trusted the fat guy, but just assumed he must have been mistaken. Or maybe given false information by Bulgy Eyes in the knowledge he would pass it onto me. I sighed and watched the muddy water slip backwards and forwards at the edge of the estuary. The village appeared to be on the banks of a river that led into the estuary, and there was a harbour gate, but no boats. I wondered whether someone moored the boats further upstream and walked that way. The river was very straight, as if they had canalised it back in the day when they used to do those things. On the other side was a disused factory. I guessed past generations had built the canal to deliver and retrieve goods from this factory. Long grass overgrew the banks and, despite the incredible straightness of the river, it was difficult to see whether there were any boats further upstream.
“There seemed to be a path trodden through the grass, and it looked like it had been freshly trod. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go to the toilet. I waded through the long grass to what I considered the most secluded spot, pulled down my trousers, and squatted. It was a blessed relief to evacuate my bowels, but the smell was terrible. I knew I was not alone only an instant before Bulgy Eyes and Fatty came wading through the grass towards me. ‘Are you following us?’ asked Bulgy Eyes, with less aggression than the last time we had met. They didn’t seem that bothered by the fact I was squatting, mid poo, trying to hide my privates from view. ‘No,’ I said, with no actual intention of convincing them. ‘Well, you may as well come with us, now you’re here,’ he said. I don’t know what Fatty had said to him, but whatever it was, it had worked.
“They stood there looking at me, waiting for my response. ‘Do you mind if I finish first?’ I said after a while. Bulgy Eyes snapped out of what had become some kind of trance. ‘Oh, yes. Sorry. We’ll just stand over here.’ The group moved away to an appropriate distance to preserve my modesty, and as they walked away, I heard Bulgy Eyes say: ‘I wondered what the smell was.’ They had thought I was just hiding and hadn’t realised I was taking a dump.”
The man laughed.
“So what had caused Bulgy Eyes to change his mind?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “And I wasn’t about to question him, I was just glad to have an option again and getting a lift to Freetown seemed like a good one, I tried to clean my arse with some long grass with limited results, gave up, pulled up my kegs and went to follow the others. They led me about another half mile up the river to a mooring and a small yacht. Bulgy Eyes shook hands with a grey-bearded man who I assumed to be the captain. They seemed to know each other and began negotiating some deal. Greybeard must have been convinced by Bulgy Eyes’ argument because he waved us all onto the boat.
“We sat on the deck, trying to avoid getting in the way of anything which looked like it might be important. Once everyone was on board, Greybeard began preparing to leave. He did not want to hang around with a gang of fugitives. That was understandable. The captain had two mates helping him. They used long poles to move the yacht away from the bank and then down the river towards the open harbour gate, which I could see in the distance downstream.
“It took a while before they pushed the boat out into the open estuary, but once we were there, they pulled the poles on board and set to work hoisting the sails. With the help of the wind, the yacht picked up speed, and the captain steered a course downstream, towards the centre of the estuary. The yacht glided along with ease, and I looked at the distant bank, becoming more distant by the minute. One of my fellow fugitives pointed ahead, and I turned to look at what he was pointing towards. It was the ruins of the Humber Bridge. Once the largest bridge in the world, it still stood, but only just. Most road sections were missing, and what was left hung at acute angles from what supporting cables remained. They ruined it. A symbol for the decay that had set in right across the country. Right across the world, though, it was becoming more and more difficult to know with any certainty what was happening in other parts of the globe. I looked up as we passed underneath, hoping loose sections of road would not choose this moment to separate from the surviving metal strands, which once suspended a mile of roadway from one bank to the other.
“We seemed to be in the centre of the channel now, with the banks on either side appeared to be about the same distance away. There was very little other traffic on the estuary and the traffic that there was seemed to keep its distance from us. I wasn’t sure whether they feared us or whether we feared them. Although both banks were quite some distance away, I could see some wooden jetties, some of which had small boats moored to them. The sun was getting lower behind us now, and the light shimmered off the water, which rippled in the yacht’s wake. I tried not to look at Bulgy Eyes in case he reconsidered and tried to throw me into the water, but I could see Fatty from the other side of the boat staring at me with a wry smile on his face, I wondered why he had been so keen to get me on board and how he had managed it. I looked the other way, but could sense his eyes burning into the back of my neck. He was making me feel uncomfortable. I tried to ignore him and looked ahead at the expanse of water ahead, which stretched out all the way to what must have been the North Sea. Then I noticed the wall. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. Not far back from the jetties. On the first bit of solid ground, I guess, there was an enormous wall. It made the fence surrounding the farm look insignificant. They made it of a variety of materials, wood, brick, concrete, corrugated iron, all cobbled together but all erected to a uniform height. It was difficult to see from a distance, but I guess it must have been about three metres high. But I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. You know this already, don’t you?”
“Not at all,” said the man. “I never tire of hearing first impressions of our great wall. It’s not just for security. It also defends our city from flooding. With the combination of sea level rises and the storm surges we seem to get all the time these days, the city would be underwater like Atlantis if it wasn’t for our enormous wall.”
“Well, it is impressive,” smiled Jack. “It seemed to stretch right along the foreshore all the way to the bridge.”
“It does,” said the man. “It surrounds the entire city and some surrounding countryside.”
“Yes, well, I could see it was unbroken along the riverside until we reached the flood barrier.”
“What used to be the flood barrier,” the man corrected. “It’s now one of our main entrance gates. There is one at the marina too.”
“Oh yes,” Jack remembered, but the correction didn’t seem that significant as the two gates were only a few hundred metres apart. “It is possible to enter by land, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” said the old man. “There’re more gates than you realise. There’s Boothferry gate, Willerby gate, Cottingham gate, Beverley gate and Holderness gate. Plus another gate on the river further up than you went.”
“But who guards all those gates?” Jack asked.
“It’s voluntary in most cases. Local groups who take it in turns to keep watch. The city has several garrisons of guards who maintain order, however. Nothing gets in or out without being checked.”
Jack laughed to himself. He knew this to be the case from first-hand experience.
“Yes, well, you know that to be the case, don’t you?”
“We have to be very careful to preserve what we have here.” said the old man. “I hope they weren’t too rough.”
“Not at all,” said Jack. “They were very thorough.”
“You came through Myton gate, didn’t you?”
“I think so.”
“Not Minerva gate into the marina?”
“No, I don’t think so. We passed through this big rectangle and up the river.”
“Yes, that’s Myton Gate. And how did you get the diary back?”
“Well, that’s the weird thing. We were all searched. They searched the boat. The captain seemed to spend an age talking to the guards, but when the search was over, they waved us through. I watched in amazement as this huge section of the wall that had continued through the water was hoisted high into the air to allow the captain’s mates to punt us through and up the river. Vessels lined the banks. Beyond that, warehouses teemed with activity even though the sun was going down, and dusk settled. We passed the boats, the warehouses, the bridges until we found a mooring.
“They led us off the boat and into a warehouse. Fatty took me aside from the others and handed me my bag that had been taken from me in Leeds. The diary was still inside. I asked him how he got it, but he just laughed. He said what I was looking for was here in Freetown, showed me through a door and then shut it behind me. I found myself on my own on the street, and it was getting dark. I know that inside the free city is safer than somewhere like Leeds, but I knew the risks and didn’t want to hang around in the street after dark.
“I followed the river as best as I could downstream where I knew the centre to be. If these Smiths were as important as I thought, then finding some official-looking building was the way to go. Workers were shutting up the warehouses which flanked the streets. There seemed to be a pub on almost every corner, and these were filling up. I tried to walk as if I knew where I was going so as not to alert the locals to how vulnerable I was.
“When I reached one bridge, a guard stopped me. I tried to walk on at first, but he shouted for me to halt, so I did as I was told and waited for him to approach. He inquired after my business, and I explained I had something for Dr Jones, He realised straight away that I was not from the city, Free Towners speak like no others, and so I had to recount the story of having just arrived by boat and of having been searched at Myton Gate. He seemed to know the yacht that had brought me here and asked me if I knew where to find Dr Jones. I admitted I didn’t, and he told me I should go to the Guildhall and pointed me in the right direction. He advised me to speak to no-one on the way and wished me luck, shaking me by the hand. This last gesture surprised me as did his parting words, which were ‘be careful, there are spies everywhere’. I did not understand why he wished me well or why anyone would want to spy on me, but, not wanting to appear ignorant, I thanked him and headed in the direction he had pointed. It was in the direction I was already heading. He told me to continue to the next bridge and then turn right.
“I crossed the road to put as much distance as possible between myself and any guards at the next bridge. I avoided eye contact and quickened my pace to maintain the impression I knew where I was going. I needn’t have been so cautious because the road curved to the right so that, by the time I reached the next bridge, the guard post next to the bridge was quite a distance.
“I turned right and saw some large stone buildings which looked official enough for one of them to be the Guildhall. It soon became clear which the Guildhall was. A large stone clock tower rose high above the building. The building itself was decorated with impressive stone columns. It was obvious where I had to go. The square it faces was quieter than the surrounding streets had been, but as I approached, there were guards at the front entrance. I took a deep breath and approached the three iron doors, each guarded by two sentries. I was still some distance away when the first sentry shouted at me, asking about my business.
“I waited until I was closer before replying, but he shouted for me to halt before I had reached a distance which would have dispensed with the need to shout.
‘What’s your business?’ the guard asked again, pointing his rifle at me.
‘I have something for Dr Jones,’ I said, tapping my bag.
‘What?’ he demanded.
‘A book,’ I said. ‘It’s from her father.’
“The sentries looked at each other. It was at that point that you came around the corner. The guards seemed to know and respect you. You had a private conversation with one of them and then suggested we come to this pub to discuss the matter. That’s it. I’ve told you my story. I’ve included every detail as you asked me. Too many details. You now know everything about me, and you still haven’t told me anything about you. How are you going to help me deliver this diary to Dr Jones, as her father requested?”
The old man finished the rest of his pint and set the empty glass down on the table with a clunk.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am a big fan of Blake’s 7 which was one of my science fiction influences when growing up.
The final episode in which *spoiler alert* Avon apparently kills Blake and then, due to a fade to black, meets an uncertain fate, always left an opening for a sequel which never seemed to arrive.
Paul Darrow was best known for his portrayal of Avon clearly felt there was scope for a new series and went ahead and wrote one in this book which was published in 2013 when Darrow was already 72 years of age. Unsurprisingly, the story features an older Avon and no doubt Darrow would have been ready to step in for any TV adaptation but, sadly, no adaptation arrived and Darrow died in 2019, aged 78, but not before writing two more books to create a trilogy.
The events of the book occur 20 years after Blake’s death. Here is how the publisher describes it:-
Many legends surround the aftermath of the collapse of The Federation, including the fate of Kerr Avon…. What happened to Avon after the death of Blake and the crew of the Scorpio?
Paul Darrow’s vivid reimagining picks up Avon’s story at the final moments of the final episode of Blake’s 7 and follows him on his fight for survival, this time with no crew and no ship to help him.
The adventure continues years later as Avon, now an old man, finds himself a key player in the game of power politics being played out on a grand scale by The Quartet – four ruthless leaders in an uneasy alliance who govern the world in place of the Federation.
Old enemies resurface and dangerous new ones appear as the time comes for old scores to finally be settled….
As the blurb alludes, characters from the original series appear and the result is an enjoyable space adventure bordering on military sci-fi.
For Blake’s 7 aficionados, Darrow’s first novel, written in 1989, explores the back story of Kerr Avon a delight with which I still have to treat myself.
so, if you’ve always wondered what happened next, this is your chance to find out. Go for it.
Adapted into a successful film, the tenth most popular post of the year was my review of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. The book examines memories and old age as well as the tough life of those working in the circus during the depression, well worth a read
Ninth on the list is a post explaining the story behind my fifth novel, Living with the Headless Mule from 2019. The novel is the prequel/sequel to my first novel Living with Saci, however, at the moment, I have withdrawn both novels from sale as I intend to relaunch them both in 2022 with new covers and new titles.
My most recent post made it to number eight with chapter one of my latest dystopian release, Collapse. Second in the series of the same name, Collapse, tells the story of what happens when the lights go out for good.
I wrote this post almost exactly a year ago following an argument with someone who claimed that black people were spoilt. I was so furious that I had to write the article to exorcise the rage I fwas feeling.
The most popular post for the second year running, and by quite a large margin was my account of trying to get a Brazilian driving license. I suspect the post must be registering well on search engines but who am I to complain, at least it drives traffic to the site.
Hope you enjoyed this year’s posts, I’ll be back in 2022 with plenty more
There will be a Facebook and Instagram live Q&A on Saturday 6th November at 4pm in London, 12 noon in New York, 9am Los Angeles and 11pm in Melbourne, Australia. You can join the live Q&A here and send me any questions you would like me to answer simply by replying to this post.
It had not been easy, but Annabel and Jim celebrated the fact that the local education authority was going to allow Olivia to take her General Certificate of Education, even though Jim and Annabel had homeschooled her for so long.
Jim mused that thousands of children with foreign heritage must have been in the same position and wondered why the central government had not passed a universal decree making education a priority for those who had been excluded.
Olivia herself was struggling with the transition to what Jim considered a ‘normal’ life, and the school referred her to a psychologist who asked Olivia to write down her dreams.
She was already scribbling in the notebook by her bed when Jim went to wake her.
“I don’t believe it,” Annabel suddenly exclaimed during breakfast. “They’ve taken our savings.”
“The Government. I was just reading on the stretch that they’ve frozen bank accounts, then I checked our account and it’s true, the money is gone.”
“At least we didn’t have much saved.”
“That’s not the point. Some people have lost thousands.”
Annabel was in a foul mood until she returned from taking Olivia to the school bus.
“I have good news,” she said as she came through the door, waving her stretch at Jim
“So do I,” said Jim, waving his.
“The Old Hall has offered me a gig.” she smiled.
“That’s good. The bookshop has offered me a lecture.”
“And more good news,” said Jim. “They are going to come and fetch all the shop fixtures. We’ll get rid of them at last.”
Jim walked down to village, to the bakers to see if they had any bread. When he got there, he found a queue of people trying to buy as much as their food cards would allow. Jim was about to join the queue when he realised that his food app wouldn’t recharge until the next day.
However, when he returned, Annabel saw he was wearing a big smile, carrying a full plastic bag.
“Did they have more than bread then?” asked Annabel.
“No, the food app isn’t charged yet.”
“What’s that then?”
“Mark was getting rid of all of his old DVDs, and he’s going to give me the machine. I’ll go back for it later.”
“I didn’t realise anyone still had DVDs.”
“What’s a DVD?” asked Olivia when she arrived home from school.
“It’s a disk,” said Jim, taking one out of the bag. “Each one has a film or some music.”
“What do you want those for? You can watch anything you want on the cloud.”
“And when you can no longer access the cloud, what will you do?”
“We’ll always be able to access the cloud.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
There was a knock at the door.
“And that’s my other surprise,” said Jim. “Come and have a look.”
Olivia and Annabel followed him to the front door, which he opened to reveal a farmer leading two goats on ropes.
“Oh, Jim, you haven’t finished the pen,” Annabel complained.
“I’ll finish it tonight.”
“They better not eat my flowers, and you’re milking them.”
“Do they have names?” asked Olivia.
“Mr Benn and Mary Poppins,” said the farmer.
“Mister Benn?” asked Jim. “You promised me two girls.”
“They call female goats nannys.”
“Okay, well, you promised me two nannys and you’ve brought me a nanny and a…”
“I thought they called male goats billys.”
“They can be unless they’re castrated, in which case they’re a wether.”
“So why do I have a nanny and a buck?”
“If you don’t, you can’t have any kids.”
“What are we going to do with the babies?” asked Annabel.
“Kids,” Jim corrected. “After the final collapse, you’ll be glad of goats.”
“What are you talking about? Collapse?”
“You watch, we are on a path that we cannot sustain.”
“You don’t think things will get better?”
“I don’t. We are running out of resources, raw materials.”
“They’ll come up with something, Jim. They always do.”
“There is no silver bullet for this, Annabel.”
Jim spent the evening finishing the pen for the goats.
7 years and 4 months before the collapse
Jim went back to the village with his recharged food app at the ready, only to discover that the shop had run out of bread. He returned to tell Annabel the news, and they both sat in silence wondering what they would do.
Lucas Davis had done some planting in the garden and there were still Brussels sprouts, kale, leeks, parsnips, broccoli, rhubarb, spring cabbage, spring cauliflower and winter salad. Jim was getting fed up with vegetable soup, roast vegetables, and stewed rhubarb.
While Annabel cooked, Jim chopped wood for the fire. After lunch, Jim caught a bus into Manchester to deliver his lecture about post-Unity Britain at the bookshop. Annabel stayed at home to rehearse for her upcoming concert.
Before he got up to speak, Jim asked the organisers to play No One is Free by Solomon Burke.
“What I am about to tell you is not new. It is not even my idea. The secretary-general of the European Realistic Disobedience Front proposed it decades ago.” Jim began. “Political and economic power were inseparable. The princes were rich and only the rich were princes. Political power delivered the ability to extract wealth from others through coercion or conquest. The power to coerce translated into titles and castles. Capitalism changed all this with merchants emerging as a new class with economic clout if little political or social power. Economic power was distinct from political authority. Merchants evolved into shareholders and financiers. The richer you were, the more shares you could buy and the more votes you had. The few with the most shares could vote for their own interests and accumulate more shares. They essentially got to tell everyone else what to do.”
Jim paused to see whether his words were sinking in. The blank faces of his audience gave him no idea.
“Imagine a system in which no-one tells anyone what to do and you could freely choose the people or teams you want to work with and how much time you want to devote to different projects,” he continued. “When hierarchies allocate resources, the results are clumsy, inefficient and oppressive. The desire to please superiors makes full transparency impossible. They keep people in the dark about the benefits or drawbacks of working with particular managers or colleagues, how happy or dysfunctional teams are, how rewarding or boring different projects are. Under a flat management model, there are frequent gaps, but the fact these gaps exist is positive. When people discover that someone has moved from one project to another, it says a lot about both the old and the new projects and teams. When people may vote with their feet, they make a collective assessment of each project’s relative value. Unpredictability is a small price to pay for quality and efficiency.”
A hand went up in the audience and Jim acknowledged he would take the question.
“Surely there are menial tasks that no one wants to do?”
“New staff would be taken on informally,” Jim answered. “There would be no need for a personnel department. Any team can start a search to fill a vacancy either internally or externally, even if it is just to clean the bathrooms on their floor. People recruited for these roles may branch out into other roles in a way that no hierarchy would allow.”
Another hand went up and Jim deferred.
“Who decides how many people get paid?”
“A company’s income would be divided into five pots, corporation tax, fixed costs, research and development, staff salaries and bonuses. Collectively, the company would decide the relative proportions of the latter four pots on a one person one vote basis. Anyone who wanted to change the proportion going to each pot would need to propose a new formula. Having decided the amount in each pot, they then divided equally the staff salaries pot among all staff.”
Several hands shot up. Jim selected one of them.
“What about the bonus pot?”
“Every year, each member of staff is given one hundred merit points which they may distribute to other members of staff in whatever proportion they wish, they can give all one hundred to one member of staff or one each to a hundred people, but they can’t allocate any to themselves. Whatever proportion of the total merit points you receive correlates with the proportion of the budget pot you receive.”
“But the system is open to abuse,” the questioner shouted out.
“The voting system is transparent,” said Jim. “So if two people agree to allocate all one hundred merit points to each other, it will be obvious for all to see. This system eliminates one of the biggest injustices of capitalism, that the owners of a company control its profits while those who work within it receive only a wage.”
“That was Roberts’ idea,” someone shouted.
“You are proposing totalitarianism?” someone else shouted.
“In theory, Roberts’ idea was that employees should share the net revenues. However, the Unity hierarchies were just as ruthless in their imposition of power management. The formal ownership of a company is less important than how power is constructed within it.”
“Who owns the company capital?” was the next interjection
“If every citizen has a bank account at the central bank. I propose dividing this account into three funds, the first to accumulate money from salary and bonuses, the second would be a trust fund that is deposited in every citizens’ account at birth. When they come of age, they have some capital to deploy to join or start a business. Rules would protect the trust fund to stop it being used injudiciously. The third is a dividend fund into which the central bank deposits a certain amount depending on the citizen’s age and which is funded through a tax on company revenues. This fund would liberate everyone from both destitution and the cruel means testing of the welfare state. It would also allow some individuals to provide priceless contributions to society without having to run a business, for example caring, environmental conservation or non-commercial art.”
“And to be lazy,” someone shouted.
“It liberates the individual from the current safety net, which simply entangles them in poverty. Dividend gives the poor and unfortunate a platform. It allows young people to experiment with different careers and to study. There would be no income or sales taxes, only tax on company revenues and property. Anyone could lend to companies, they can loan to a company from their own trust fund or accumulation.”
“What happens when people fall out or want to leave?” Jim was asked.
“Then they just leave. They can dismiss underperforming or misbehaving employees with a board of inquiry. There is no golden handshake, although members can vote for a gift if they wish. With small partnerships of two members who wish to part company, each submits a sealed bid for what they feel the company is worth.”
“What about social responsibility?” came the next question.
“Their flat management structure will keep them relatively small, probably only a few hundred staff. A social responsibility act would ensure that we grade each company according to a social worthiness index by regional panels of randomly selected local citizens from a digital stakeholder community formed whenever a company is registered. These panels who grade the companies using a standard social ratings system monitor conduct, activities and effects on communities. We would publish these ratings online, available to anyone. If a rating falls below a certain threshold, we would order a public inquiry, which could cause the company’s deregistration, in which case we would shut it down or put it out to tender. This would curb exploitative practices.”
“How did it go?” Annabel asked when he returned.
“I think it went okay. Some of the audience came up to me at the end and criticised me for not talking about China, but I think they received it well.”
“Many people there?”
“Yes, it was packed, and look what they gave me,” he brandished a bag full of print books.
“What do you want those for?” asked Olivia, who had come downstairs when she heard her father arrive. “You can get all the books in the world on your stretch. They are all on the cloud.”
“And what will you do when you can no longer access the cloud?”
“Don’t be silly, we’ll always be able to access the cloud.”
“What did you get?” asked Annabel.
Jim pulled a book from the bag.
“The complete book of butchering, smoking, curing and sausage making.”
“What did you get that for?” Olivia squealed in horror. “You are vegetarian.”
“Practically vegan,” Annabel added.
7 years and 3 months before the collapse
Jim went back to the council offices, inquiring whether the university would re-open and if he could resume his old position. He was told that they were aiming to open the schools first and the university afterwards. The self-appointed regional assembly had assumed responsibility for education, and it was not yet clear how funding would be distributed, which complicated matters.
Jim left the council building and went straight to a jeweller and used whatever money he could spare to buy silver coins.
When he arrived home, Annabel was just heading out to go to a concert rehearsal.
“What’s that you’ve got?” She asked, seeing the small bag of coins.
“Jim? What is going on? I don’t have time to talk about it now, but we need to talk. We don’t have money to buy silver.”
“Wait until I get back. We’ll talk then.”
However, when Annabel returned, Olivia and Jim were already sleeping.
7 years and two months before the collapse
When Jim left, Annabel was still sleeping. The Assembly had invited him to an Antifa meeting..
The purpose appeared to be to discover the crimes of the Unity campaign by holding question-and-answer sessions with the victims.
They were particularly interested in those who had been interned in camps
“I was not in a camp,” Jim pointed out. “I wouldn’t want people to think I was boasting about my everyday problems.”
“Nonsense,” said the chair. “Your experiences are also very important.”
She gave them suggested dates for the sessions.
Jim went straight to the Old Hall, which was the venue for Annabel’s concert where she and Olivia were waiting for him.
There were about sixty or seventy in the audience, and Jim thought Annabel played very well.
“We have double cause for celebration,” Annabel told him after the concert.
“I’ve been dying to tell you all night,” Olivia squealed with joy. “But mummy made me promise to wait until now.”
“What is it?”
“You tell him, Olivia.”
“I got my GCE results.”
“I passed all of them, and I have a place at sixth form college.”
“That’s fantastic, well done.”
“I saw you put the goats together,” said Annabel.
“Well, we need to if we are going to have kids.”
“Are we going to have baby goats?” asked Olivia.
“I hope so,” said Jim.
Annabel rolled her eyes.
7 years and 1 month before the collapse
“Look at this,” said Jim, showing the message he’d just received on his stretch. “They have offered me a course of five one-hour lectures to expound on the ideas I shared in my speech at the bookshop.”
“But that’s not all. The Northern Assembly is contemplating not re-opening the university in favour of more vocational higher education. Can you believe it?”
“Jim, after the last ten years I can believe anything.”
“And that’s not the last of it. There’s another proposal here, more lectures on the effect of the Unity campaign on scholarship. I had better go into the city today.”
When he arrived at the office building where he had been told to go, Jim found a crowd outside. Jim announced himself to the doorman, who was as coarse with Jim as he was being with the rest of the crowd.
“You’ll be in trouble if you don’t let me in,” Jim snapped.
“I was in a camp,” replied the doorman. “And now I take orders from no-one.”
“Me too,” Jim lied.
“Which camp?” asked the doorman.
Jim realised this was an argument he could not win and slipped away. He read that out of the 5 million immigrants that had been in the UK pre-unity, only 250,000 remained. Could they have replicated these statistics in other developed nations around the world? Could this have been another genocide? Another holocaust?
Will Atkinson saw Jim staring at his stretch and, wondering what he was doing, went over to him.
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” said Atkinson after Jim had explained the run in with the doorman. “We’re always having problems with him. He actually was in a camp but he’s completely unsuitable for his job, but they insist on keeping him, there’s nothing else for him to do. We have to do whatever the assembly tells us to.”
Jim wondered whether the country had just stumbled from one autocracy into another.
“I just came to confirm that you actually want me to lecture on Unity and scholarship,” he said.
“Yes, that’s right. One hour.”
Jim wondered how he would fill an hour on the subject because in his opinion you could address the whole subject in a sentence; either one is objective or one is fanatical.
On his way home, he saw that the cinema had reopened and asked Annabel and Olivia if they wanted to go. They did and invited Mark and Sofia so they could get a lift.
They watched a remake of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which Jim thought was not as good as the original. He wondered why filmmakers seemed to have an obsession to ruin excellent films by making them again.
The village had no electricity when they pulled up at Mark and Sophia’s, and the house was cold when they had walked up the lane. The wood stove didn’t seem to be efficient enough to heat the house in the cold spell they were experiencing.
7 years before the collapse
There was a ceremony in the city for the victims of Unity in Piccadilly gardens. Hundreds of people had gathered
As victims of Unity, they are told that they may be eligible for compensation. They went to investigate but were turned away from the Unity victims’ office.
“Only those who were interred in the camps were victims,” said the snooty receptionist. “You need to go to the council and apply for benefits.”
Jim was on his way to the council when he learned, via his stretch, that Quinn, the man who was trustee for their house and had tried to help them, had died.
“He was in his forties,” Jim told Annabel. “Apparently he hadn’t seen his youngest child. The child was born after they had transferred Quinn to a camp. They moved him straight from the camp to the hospital where he died.”
“That’s so sad,” said Annabel.
At the council, Jim received the same treatment as at the victims’ office and was told to apply online. He went home and found Aiden Clark waiting for him.
“How are you Jim?” said Aiden. “Glad to see you are settling in. You don’t look happy though.”
“I’m sorry. I just learned today that someone who had tried to help us has died. There was a doctor as well, who was very kind to us. I recently heard he is very ill. Are you coming to Annabel’s concert?”
“Yes, I’ll drive us all there.”
“It’s the second gig she’s got.”
“So I heard.”
“Have you been to the Old Hall before?”
“No, I heard they did a fantastic job on the restoration.”
“At least one good thing came from Unity.”
Aiden drove them to the Old Hall, and the concert went well until there was a power cut. Annabel played the rest of her set acoustically to a room full of candles and then they went home.
Jim received a message from the university announcing that they hoped to restart at the beginning of November and they would like him to be a professor again.
“Annabel, listen to this,” he said, going into the bedroom to give her the good news. “What’s wrong with your face?”
“I don’t know. It’s itchy. What does it look like?”
“You have shiny red… or purple.. bumps.”
“Yes, I can feel them.”
“Let’s take you to the doctor.”
“You need to make sure Olivia gets the school bus.”
“Yes, yes, I will. Get yourself ready.”
“And Mr Benn smells.”
“Yes, I’ll move him further away, just get yourself ready.”
It was rainy as they got the bus into town. On the way, they realised a smaller amount had recharged onto their food app than they had expected and, on investigation, discovered that the reorganisation of the system had left them in a worse position than before.
On the way, they noticed that posters of the Assembly First Minister Alex, had appeared all over the place.
When they arrived, Dr Armstrong gave Jim and Annabel a warm welcome.
“How do you like my new surgery?” he asked. “I have a medical assistant and three receptionists.”
“Very nice,” said Annabel.
“Yes, I’m advising the Assembly, they’ll probably give me a position and a big title in the ministry.”
Jim thought about how pale and unwell Dr Armstrong looked, but he was obviously happy.
“Oh, by the way,” the doctor continued. “You remember that Unity police officer, the one who you told me, slapped Annabel? Committed suicide. Anyway, let’s have a look at you both.”
They followed him into the examination room.
“Well, I’m afraid you both have eczema. Probably gave it to each other. Better keep an eye on Olivia, too. I’ll give you a prescription for corticosteroid cream but good luck in finding some. If not, you could try green tea if you can get hold of any.”
At the chemist, there was a queue. The chemist did not have the cream Dr Armstrong had recommended, but could supply an alternative.
While they were in the city, Jim tried to settle matters with the university. They confirmed he would need to deliver a lecture on 18th November and approved an advance on his salary.
They returned home in a brighter mood than when they had left and Jim set to work moving Mr Benn’s pen.
6 years and 11 months before the collapse
“Up to the end of the 16th century, even global trading companies were guilds or partnerships, whose members pooled their resources to achieve that which none of them could achieve in isolation. Then, the East India Company became the first joint stock company. It created the possibility for companies with powers so immense that it would dwarf their countries of origin and could be deployed in faraway places to exploit people and resources. The East India Company grew more powerful than the British state, answerable only to its shareholders. In Britain it controlled the Government, abroad its private army oversaw the destruction of well-functioning economies in Asia and ensured the systematic exploitation of their peoples. It was the template for companies that were to follow, overthrowing governments. Freedom means as much under the thumb of global conglomerates as it does under totalitarian regimes like Unity – nothing. While we celebrated the local businesses, we turned a blind eye to the global behemoths that stop at nothing to destroy their competitors.”
Jim took a deep breath. He was delivering a similar lecture to the one he had at the bookshop and had barely paused for breath in his excitement..
“Even in this current climate of great hardship,” he continued. “There are millions working in the voluntary sector. They have managers who have no rights to fire them, force them to do things or even discipline them. The fire, lifeboat and ambulance services where these individuals work are incredibly efficient. Could the entire economy emulate the voluntary sector? I envisage an employment marketplace where individuals are free to move from organisation to organisation.”
“If this model was the most efficient, it would have happened already,” said a member of the audience when Jim took her question.
“When a system evolves, it just means it is the best to survive in that environment. It does not mean it is the best system in the long run,” said Jim. “Capitalism channels the efforts of all the greatest minds to the destruction of the planet, despite the warnings for more than half a century.”
“You are justifying a Unity policy. If I own a business and then employ someone, why should I give them an equal share in my business?” came the next question.
“The real question is, do we want the net revenues of an enterprise to be distributed by a workplace dictatorship? This is inevitable if shares are traded, or do we want the division of the company’s profits to be decided by a workplace democracy? This is only possible if there are equally distributable and non-tradable shares. It is the only system that does not make a mockery out of liberal democracy and a wasteland out of our planet. Next question?”
“I can’t imagine any greater tyranny than some random group passing judgment over us,” said the next member of the audience.
“I would rather a group of random citizens deciding whether my company is serving society than a totalitarian government like Unity,” said Jim. “I can think of no better check on power than someone who has been selected who probably doesn’t want the power. By the way, if you want to improve our public schools and hospitals? Pass a law which demands that all elected officials, whether international, regional or local government, must send their children to state schools and use public hospitals. I think you would find that the quality of our schools and hospitals would suddenly improve.”
The crowd cheered.
After the lecture, Jim received two offers to repeat it, one to the teachers’ union and the other to the members of the majority party in the assembly. The second invite came with a promise to email membership forms to the party.
Jim woke up with a terrible head cold. He made coffee and sat down to write, but the party membership forms were sitting there in his email inbox, looking back at him. He felt like he would be a coward if he joined, but also a coward if he didn’t. On the one hand, he worried that joining a party that was courting him was egotistical, but he considered the party the lesser of all evils. It was the only one pressing for the exclusion of the Unity extremists while on the negative side, replacing restrictions on freedoms with other restrictions on freedoms.
A confirmation message from the university, asking him to attend to finalise matters, distracted him. He resolved to fill in the form and join the party.
He told Annabel his intention.
“Good,” she said. “What made up your mind?”
“I think that not being in a party these days is a luxury which is tantamount to cowardice, or at least extreme apathy. It’s the only way to get us out of our current problems.”
“I’ve had more invites to lecture as well.”
“Things are looking up.”
Jim went to the university to see what Unity had left of the place and to prepare his new post-Unity course.
He saw Henry Harris, they both ignored each other. Jim felt awkward because others were trying to introduce them. King saved Jim.
“Jim! How are you? How are Annabel and Olivia?”
“Good thanks, and how are you?”
“Very good, thanks. You must have heard that I am to be the head of the section.”
“No, I hadn’t heard that.”
There was an awkward pause.
“I have joined the party,” Jim broke the silence.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“I have a confession to make,” said Jim. “I really fear the future of people of foreign heritage. Tens of thousands of immigrants used to arrive in Manchester every year. Now there must be less than ten thousand in total and yet, those with foreign heritage hold many of the top positions in local government.”
6 years and 10 months before the collapse
Jim arrived late to a meeting at the assembly building where he had been asked to give a lecture at a cross party meeting.
“I hear that they have elected you to the cabinet,” said Dr Armstrong, who was there trying to improve his chances of being asked to be health minister.
“Yes, unanimously proposed by all four parties.”
After Jim had delivered his standard lecture, he added more about concepts for central banking, all taken from ideas over 25 years old.
“To get the public to stay with their central bank accounts, we will give them a 5% tax relief as long as they pay their tax in advance while giving them the right to change their minds and spend it in the meantime. Because private banks cannot offer this amount of interest, or offer tax relief, money will migrate from private banks back to the central bank. Every newborn will continue to receive a trust fund which cannot be used until the baby is an adult. Income and sales tax will be abolished and instead of 5% tax relief, the central bank will offer 5% interest on all balances. The amount in the central bank will be transparent so that no-one can create additional money without everyone knowing. The US, UK and Europe created trillions of dollars, pounds and euros for the ultra-rich 0.1% while the masses drove themselves into the ground, working for a pittance. We will encourage community cooperative money brokers to pool the savings of individuals to fund worthwhile enterprises. I’ll answer your question.”
Jim indicated a member of the audience.
“How do you intend to control the overall supply of money in the economy?”
Jim recognised the assembly’s finance minister.
“The central bank’s charter will be clear. They will adjust the quantity of money to regulate prices and enable the production of socially valued goods and services for society. When average prices rise above a threshold, the central bank would increase the interest it offers to savers, encouraging people to reduce spending, at other times, when economic activity is too sluggish, the interest rate would be reduced and/or the dividend increased.”
“But will the central bank become independent of the government?” asked the finance minister.
“The central bank will become independent of the government, but not of society. Monetary committees will decide the supply of money, comprising a rotating panel, chosen by lot, using an algorithm that ensures fair representation of all members of society. Multiple local currencies will run alongside that of the central bank’s. The point of these local currencies is to keep value produced locally in the local community. In this way, transfer of wealth from one region to another can be regulated by increasing or decreasing the amount charged for exchanging local for national currency in proportion to the imbalance in wealth and trade flow between the two regions.”
At the end of the lecture, a young woman approached Jim and introduced herself as Luna Adams from the Manchester Evening News. She asked whether she could have a transcript of the lecture.
“I’m afraid I don’t have one,” said Jim. “But I would be happy to discuss the ideas with you at another time if you like.”
Luna thanked him and took his number.
After an exchange of messages, Jim invited Luna to the house for an interview.
“You have been an outspoken critic of the IMP,” she began.
“The IMP still lends money to bankrupt countries on terms that are the equivalent of debt bondage,” said Jim. “When a developing country can no longer raise the money it owes to foreign bankers, the IMP steps in to lend the money on the condition that the country transfers public property to the international oligarchy. It is not different from the IMF and results in school and hospital closures, cuts in pensions and wages below the poverty line.”
“But what should it be doing?”
“Its role should stabilise the world economy and to invest directly in the regions of the world that need investment to develop, without putting them into debt.”
“Isn’t that just the old socialist dream of a magic money tree?”
“No, there are levies on net exporters of goods and money that would help to stabilise world trade and global money flow. They should channel the proceeds of these levies into free development funds for the world’s least developed regions. At the moment, the net exporters and importers still end up with trade surpluses or deficits.”
“Yes, Professor Smith, I know how the balance of trade works.”
“Then you know that we have had a trade deficit with Germany for the last century and deficit countries have to borrow more and more to afford to buy the goods from the surplus countries. This continued reliance on international bankers is very dangerous and the situation becomes worse when the country has to borrow in a currency other than its own, for example, having to borrow in euros to pay Germany, or in rubles to buy gas from Russia. As soon as banks stop lending the UK euros and rubles, it cannot finance its debt. Germany and Russia are happy to lend us euros and rubles as long as we keep buying their products and resources. As soon as they stop lending us the money, the complete house of cards collapses. The IMP agrees to lend the UK the missing euros or rubles as long as the UK agrees to impoverish their people and sell the family silver to the global oligarchs. Of course, when you get a populist government like Unity who were happy to blame the Chinese and Germans and Russians for their surpluses, then the people blamed these countries rather than their own government or the IMP for their own poverty. It poisons the deficit country’s democracy as it has done in the UK and the US. Trade imbalances never end well, which is why they must be managed.”
“How would you prevent this?”
“Joining the global digital currency and pressing for IMP reform so that it sticks to its founding principles. They should penalise countries for running a large surplus or deficit by charging a trade imbalance levy. This should fund sustainable investments in public health, education, renewable energy, transport and organic agriculture, mostly in the less developed regions in the world. It would also fund migration flows of a human movement project. These are not loans but transfers. To avoid the levy, a country should import roughly the same value of goods and services as it exports. We could fix the levy at 5% of deficits and surpluses and then rise to 10% later.”
“It won’t balance trade.”
“Even if it cannot balance trade, it will generate funds to be invested in underdeveloped regions. The point is to curtail global imbalances, especially the flow of money from one economic block to another. There should also be a surge funding levy to prevent investments in underdeveloped regions from causing a boom/bust.”
“What is a surge funding levy?”
“It’s a fee on international transactions that kicks in above a certain threshold and increases in proportion to the speed and volume of the transfers. They also use the fees for international development. These funds should also help developing countries adhere to the stricter emission limits required to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
“How are exchange rates determined?”
“There would be daily auctions to work out exchange rates. What I am talking about is an almost fully automated system of global discipline that balances out trade and money flows and funds the transition of developing regions to low carbon energy, sustainable transport, organic agriculture and decent public education and health systems. We just need international agreements to reform the IMP and conduct international trade in the global digital currency.”
“I am impressed,” said Luna. “Could that agreement be achieved?”
“It is the US, the UK and Brazil who don’t see the benefits, the rest of the world is already striving towards this system.”
“Thank you very much for your time, Professor Smith. I must go, I have to pick up my daughter, I left her in daycare.”
“How old is she?”
“Can’t her father collect her?”
“We are divorced.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No need to be. It was an amicable split.”
“So have you always been a journalist?”
“I studied political economy, but I always wanted to be a journalist, but when Unity was in power, I was deemed ‘politically unreliable’. So I worked as a film extra for a while, got married, had my daughter, got divorced and now I’m here.”
“What do you think the future will bring?”
“I don’t know. I have no faith in the current coalition.”
Another lecture, building on the others, this time focusing on land.
“From the 13th century, common land has been enclosed. Between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 individual enclosure acts were passed, affecting 6.8 million acres and kick-starting capitalism. We should transfer all land titles to regional authorities.”
There was a murmur of disquiet among the gathering. Unity had already nationalised all freeholds, and some had only just got their deeds back, many others were still waiting.
“We need a great ground reform act to establish a grounds common authority for each county which will hold the freehold titles. We would grant existing landlords free lifetime leases. We would divide the land between social zones and commercial zones. Rent from commercial zones would fund social housing and other social projects in the social zones. I disagree with much that Unity put in place but the common ownership of property was a move in the right direction.”
A collective gasp showed how astonished the crowd was to hear anyone agree with a Unity policy. Polarisation in society still existed, just the balance of power had changed.
“We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Jim pleaded with the disgruntled crowd. “There would be two types of commercial zones, one for houses occupied by those willing and able to pay market rates and one for commercial businesses. A permanent subletting auctions scheme would manage the zones. At the beginning of each year, anyone who occupies a building in a commercial zone as a business or a resident will bid for how much rent they are willing to pay for the coming year. If they bid more than the current occupier, then they may take it over after a transition period. Set the value of the property you occupy too high and you pay too much rent, set it too low and you risk eviction. Questions?”
“How are land and houses distributed in the social zones?”
“A county wide people’s assembly will oversee the division of land between commercial and social zones, the division of commercial zones between business and residential use and the distribution of properties within social zones. We will randomly select its members using an algorithm that guarantees fair representation of various groups and communities living in the county.”
“Yes, but who qualifies for social housing and, out of those, who gets the more desirable properties?” the questioner interjected.
“Once we have allocated you a property within a social zone, we would guarantee tenure. When a property is vacated or we build a new property, we would allocate the property using a randomised digital raffle. Everyone seeking a property is included but we increase their odds of winning according to an assessment of their needs and decreased according to the value of their savings, in other words, their ability to bid for a commercial property.”
At the end of the lecture, the warm applause he received heartened Jim, but he suspected the gathering was being polite. He observed many sceptical faces.
“Alex is turning down all claims for compensation,” Jim complained to Annabel. “I’ve been told I would have to sue. The university said they can increase my salary, but only if I drop my claim for compensation.”
“You’re not going to?”
“Of course not. I’ve received a receipt for my application to register as a victim of Unity.”
“Have you read the article in the Evening News?”
“I’ve just had a message from someone complaining about it. They think you wrote it.”
“Oh shit, let me have a look. Oh no, it looks like I am making myself out to be the victim. There is very little of the content of the lecture. It is as if I am trying to portray myself as a martyr.”
Jim began sending messages, telling people he was not responsible for the article. He even emailed the editor and copied the individuals he wanted to witness his protest. He didn’t want to be associated with the waves of arrests which were purging the country. He worried that the continued divisiveness would eventually lead to civil war. The regional assemblies were clamouring for power from Westminster and Westminster, seeking to quieten the unrest was conceding to regional demands, leaving itself impotent.
The Northern Assembly was riding on the back of the working class popularity of Jim’s suggestion for land reforms, but there was no sign they were attempting to implement the measures that he had cribbed from the economists of decades before. There was no sense of fairness, the Assembly was just confiscating land it wanted and this made Jim the villain, as the person who had the temerity to suggest keeping a Unity policy.
My fellow independent author, JJ Toner has recently released a new volume in the Android Wars series, Escape from Luciflex, for which I was fortunate to be a beta reader.
Carla Scott, an Android engineer, has been banished to the molten mines of Luciflex, a penal colony at the far end of the galaxy. She must escape, with the help of some pirates, in order to prevent a war.
The first in the series is called The Shape of Fear. Working in secret, Carla develops a software module to give her androids Pain – and Fear. What could possibly go wrong!
J J lives in Ireland, and works in a small study overlooking a magnificent copper beech tree, writing science and historical fiction, editing (including the work of other authors), and reading and is currently writing Bubble One, the third book in the series.
Égalité, the only goldilocks planet in the E-System, has an elliptical orbit, with a climate that ranges from blistering heat to extreme cold. The colonists live inside huge geodesic Bubbles. Tensions arise when the indigenous amphibious ‘animals’ go to war against the invaders. Book four is next on the writing list.
I enjoyed reading Escape from Luciflex, there was lots going on, story wise and J J has created a fascinating future in which humans have expanded to a number of other systems. The story keeps twisting right until the end and is well worth a read
Thrillers are not my usual preferred genre, so I probably wouldn’t have picked up a Mark Dawson book were it not for the fact that Mark Dawson is not only one of the successful self-published authors but he is also part of the popular self-publishing podcast, The Self Publishing Formula.
I have listened to a couple of hundred episodes of the podcast and it taught me most of what I learned about self-publishing in my first few years. So, when a Mark Dawson novel popped up in a 2 for 1 deal in Audible, I decided I would give it a go.
Two other books I picked up in these deals were Casino Royal by Ian Fleming, the first Bond novel, and Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis, subtitled A James Bond novel, it was the first James Bond continuation novel, written in 1968, four years after Fleming’s death. I have to say that all three novels are very similar in style which is meant to be a complement to Mark Dawson. They all have the almost pedantic attention to detail and Dawson clearly did a reasonable amount of research for his novel.
The actions of some of the characters are clearly based on the movements of the July 7 bombers who targeted commuters travelling on London’s public transport system during the morning rush hour in 2005.
The protagonist, Isabella Rose, whom the series is named after, is the fifteen-year-old daughter of Beatrix Rose, the protagonist of another Mark Dawson series. There are many references to the Beatrix books which provide the backstory to this series and a common character, Pope, is a key character in The Angel.
Like I said, thrillers are not really my genre, despite having written two suspense books myself, but I endeavour to read in a range of genres and in this case I was pleased I did.
If you like thrillers then I would highly recommend trying The Angel.