Downtime

Click. Click. Click. Egg timer. Egg timer. Egg timer. Error message.

Task ‘janeyhughton.co.uk – Sending and Receiving’ reported error  4470: ‘Outlook is unable to connect to your outgoing (SMTP) e-mail server. If you continue to receive this message, contact the server administrator or Internet service provider (ISP).’

Thank you, Outlook, thank you SMTP e-mail server, whatever you are. Thank you, server administrator. I didn’t want that client to actually receive that piece of work, did I? That would be foolish.

I mean, the client may well have asked for it, demanded it, even. We may have agreed, by way of a legal contract, signed and wtitnessed and jointly assigned, that they, the client would, in fact, receive this piece of work that I, the provider, thereby agreed and enjoined to complete, and do so on this very day. This being, in fact, the deadline. The time at which I, Janey Hughton, being the provider, agreed to provide the piece of work that they, Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, being the client, have asked for, and promised, in return, to give me, Janey Hughton, money.

Money which, to be honest, server administrator, would, in part, have been sent in turn to your employers, the Netservicer Corporation of America, by way of me, their customer, paying my bill and then, by way of the arcane laws of economics – trickle down, and the like – into the money to pay for my internet and your, in fact, wages.

In short, I seem to have no email, and email is what I need in order to send this copy to the tedious estate agent with halitosis and a misplaced sense of self-worth for his gaudily loathsome website so that he can sell houses, make money and buy himself more shiny suits which would look a trifle ostentatious on a “Goodfella”, let alone an unpleasant business graduate of Salford City College with an estate agency in a suburb of North Manchester.

I look at the clock in the corner of my PC, which does, thankfully, seem to be working, setting it head and virtual shoulders above the rest of the software applications which lurk, grumpily, on the solid state memory, and it tells me that it is 13:15. A quarter past one, in old money, and I have until 17:30, when Mr Osmond, the foul tick, shuts his tatty office, pulls down the shutters and wanders off to upset and annoy people in his spare time, rather than professionally, by which to provide the copy I have wearily and half-heartedly crafted over the past few days.

I have, therefore, four and a quarter hours in which to save the copy from my recalcitrant computing device onto whichever portable storage device it deigns to recognise this afternoon, and take said portable device via public transport from this place, my home, to that place, Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, 14 Florizel Place, Cheetham Hill, by means of either public transport or my bicycle.

This prospect does little to delight me. Indeed, it fails to delight me even a little bit. It fails to produce anything in me other than a mix of trepidation, fear, loathing, disgust, world-weary cynicism and even, for cosmopolitan good measure, a touch of fin-de-siecle ennui. 

I try to check the bus times but this, too, seems beyond the wit of man, machine or Microsoft today, and resort instead to me phone, which tells me I have missed the hourly bus which would enable me to make a connection to another bus and get to the bus station in Bury, and thence onto the ethereal and exotic delights of the 135 bus to Manchester, alighting in Cheetham Hill and walking the half mile or so to Florizel Place and deliver it in person.

Bike it is then.

I have an interesting relationship with my bike. There are times when I love it beyond reason, there are times when it exasperates me beyond compare. It is impish and inconsistent in its nature; its gears have a tendency to flit, unbidden, from high to low. The mudguards often don’t, and the luggage rack and panniers are rarely the correct proportions to accommodate any kind of shopping or other luggage which I require them to transport. It does, however, have a rather fetching basket, a nice floral pattern stencilled onto the chain guard. It is green, as well, and I like green. It gives me peace and calms me,  properties which are, given the trying circumstances of the day, very much at a premium just now.

I glance out of the window. The sun is shining, it is dry and, judging by the stillness of the trees, relatively calm. Acceptable cycling weather. Bike, it most definitely is.

It takes but a matter of 15 minutes for the five page Word document to finally ensconce itself onto my USB memory stick – shaped, hilariously, as a penguin – and I can finally log off the benighted machine and close it down, sadly, not for good.

I take the opportunity to ring the offices of Michael James Osmond Estate Agents to forewarn him that the email will not be arriving but I, traffic, legs, tyres and chain permitting, will be, with the required copy on an appropriate portable storage device upon my person, ready for him to send onto his web developers, and thence onto the world wide web, enabling house buyers and sellers with a yen for northern Mancunian living to transact more readily in future

I can pop my penguin pen drive (ha ha!) into my bag, pop my bag, in turn, into the basket of Christabel, my trusty Pashley Britannia, and set off on my nine mile trek from rural South East Lancashire to the bustle and grime of North Manchester. Bloody cobbles.

The journey from the village into town is relatively uncontroversial. Just the one motorist who needs to be gently and politely reminded, yes, gently and politely, of Rule 178 of the Highway Code, which outlines the fact that the bloody great bicycle painted in the green box at the traffic lights indicates that it is bicycles that belong in them, rather than road vehicles with more wheels and engines than a bicycle might ordinarily aspire to. He thanks  me with a cheery wave, using the traditional two fingers rather than the single digit which seems to becoming more prevelant these days.

From town I can go “off road”- it sounds so adventurous – and even through the park, sadly removing the opportunity for further social interplay with motorists, but with the compensatory advantage of trees, greenery (I did mention the calming thing, didn’t I) and not being knocked off and killed horribly. Often a plus, I find.

A couple of side streets takes me there, and as I roll gently down the big hill towards the Hall, I check my watch. 14:35. I am making good time and I realise, in my rush to complete the copy in time for the email to fail to deliver it within the deadline, I have skipped lunch. Dinner, as my childhood lancastrian self forever reminds me, with my fancy university-educated ways.

There is the cafe, there is the chip van. Decisions, decisions. I’ll go for the cafe, and I lock Christabel outside, and wander in to see what is on offer. I should explain, I suppose, naming my bicycle. Yes, it is twee, a hangover of my childhood habit of putting a name on everything, it is cloying and cutesy and not the normal act of an otherwise sensible woman in her mid-30s, with a reasonably successful business of her own, and no cats. In my defence, my first bike was called Emmeline, and my next will be called Sylvia. I would claim a lifelong commitment to the women’s movement, but that would, somewhat overstate the case, and understate the influence that the CBBC series Horrible Histories has had upon my life. I blame working from home.

I buy a cheese salad sandwich, hand-cut, allegedly, though I suspect a knife may also have been involved, and lovingly wrapped in clingfilm by the stout artizan behind the counter. Crisps, too, Kettle Chips – I will be coming into money, after all – and a bottle of the most carbonated spring water available in this fins establishment. Dinner is served.

I sit outside, at one of the picnic tables, so I can keep an eye on Christabel (THERE ARE BIKE THIEVES OPERATING IN THIS AREA, a poster somewhat intrusively informs me), and, well, enjoy is putting it a bit strongly, I consume the sandwich, pausing to insert a Kettle Chip before each mouthful, and momentarily ruing the lack of mayonnaise, before opening the water and drinking deeply. I am unsuccessfully stifling a belch when a man sits down across the table from me and smiles.

“Please smile and pretend that you were expecting me, my life may depend upon it,” he mutters under his breath, grabbing my hands in his and air-kissing effusively and saying “Susan, my dear, how lovely to see you, it’s been how, what five, ten? So long, my dear you look simply lovely, lovely, the years have been so kind to you.”

Nonplussed. Yes, nonplussed, is what I would go with here. With a soupcon of confused, a side of bewildered and a dressing of annoyed in a little jug so I can add it to taste. “I beg your pardon? Who are you?”

Smiles, more hand-holding, and I pour a bit more of that dressing. “Please don’t be alarmed, Miss,” he says, quietly again, and gets a small brownie point for sidestepping “madam”.

“My name is Simon Renquist, I am a civil servant. I am in need of some urgent assistance, I’m afraid. I wonder if you would be able to help me?” he asks, the mouth still smiling, but the eyes imploring, pale grey eyes, I notice, with flecks of green and blue. Oh yes, nonplussed.

“I beg your pardon? What do you? How do?” my words, which are, to be fair, the tools of my trade, seem to be failing me, deserting my mouth when it needs it most. I wonder what the error message currently flashing across my synapses. “Vocabulary and articulation error 4777. Please contact your brain service provider.”

“Some men are following me,” he says. “I find myself in possession of some information which I do not wish to have, and they certainly should not have. They wish me to share this information with them, and then relieve me of my burden, somewhat permanently.”

“What? What information? And why are you speaking in that strange way?” I ask.

“That’s just my accent. My father was Swedish, but…” he begins

“No, not that, Your… idiom. You speak like you were written by John Buchan,” I reply. Someone has clearly turned something off and turned it back on again. I mean to say Idiom!

“Sorry, but that is not far from the truth, dear lady. I learned English by reading adventure novels. I think that’s what drew me into this line of work. Anyway, would you be able to help me, do you think?” he says, his smile gone now, replaced by a look of earnest entreaty.

I am at a loss. What does one do in these circumstances? Sense tells me to extricate my hands and use them to unlock Christabel and, in the argot of today, do one. Sense and pretty well every other iota of my being. Every iota other than the ones that noticed the eyes and how nicely dressed he is. Brogues, light grey linen suit, a white shirt and a knitted tie. A green one.

“How can I help?”

“The men I mentioned are looking for this,” he said, pulling a small electronic device from his pocket. “Or, rather, the information which is on this. It is evidence that the government have covered up the murder of several prominent climate scientists, and suppressed evidence from their own inquiry about climate change. I was attempting to upload it to an international whistle-blowing site when they interrupted me. The website address is on the file. If I could give you a copy of it, all you have to do is plug it into a computer connected to the internet and find the site, and upload it.”

He has clearly seen me coming. The bike, the hand-knitted cardigan, the sandals. I clearly reek armchair green warrior. I shake my head. “How can I get a copy?”

Simon Renquist’s grey eyes (flecked with green ands blue) narrow. “Do you have any kind of USB drive? A pen drive, anything like that?”

Yes, yes I do. “Yes, yes, I do!” I shout, rather more enthusiastically than is strictly necessary. Here, in my bag. I pull out the penguin pen drive (ha ha) and hand it to Simon Renquist. He plugs it into his hand-held gizmo and presses a few buttons on the touchscreen.

“Come on, come on,” he mutters, and his linen-clad leg taps impatiently beneath the picnic table. Something beeps and he takes out the penguin pen drive and hands it back to me. “Please, just find a computer, any computer, and load this up. The planet needs you, Miss, er, sorry. What is your name?”

“Janey, Janey Hughton. Have a card.” I hold one out, but her holds his hand up – no, thank you, you don’t want anything connecting yourself to me. Please, take this and go. Now!”

He jumps up and hurries off, towards the Hall. I sit, holding the penguin pen drive in my hand and watch him go. That is a lovely suit. Very well cut. I wonder if it is tailor-made? Bespoke? Suddenly Simon Renquist falls to his knees, and then to the ground, arm forward, his head hitting the ground. I stand, ready to run over to him, but then two men come from the trees over to the side, wearing sunglasses, striding purposely towards Simon’s prone form

I drop the penguin pen drive into my bag and stand up slowly, trying to be as casual as I can, which, to be frank, is not vey casual at all. I struggle to achieve cool, insouciant, casual. I do better with flappy, fussy, standing inadvertently out in a crowd. I walk over to Christabel and look over to the  men as they lift up Simon, making out that he’s drunk, “dear me, few too many,” says the taller of the two. The shorter has extracted the gizmo from Simon’s pocket and has checked through it. They exchange words and look around, and spot me, failing to cooly mount Christabel and ride off serenely. Instead I panic, tangle my feet in the pedals and fall forward, dropping the bike to the floor.

The two men are 20 yards away, but still holding up Simon, so can’t walk towards me too quickly. This comforts me until the taller man reaches behind his back and pulls something long, metallic and really rather gun-like from his waistband. Panic now gives way to adrenaline, and my legs bypass the brain and go straight to standing, mounting and pedalling, and Christabel cycles serenely away, with me safely astride her, into a crowd of schoolchildren, and down the steep hill towards the lake.

I chance one look back, and the men have deposited Simon on a bench and are running down the hill towards me. I slip the gear into low (or is it high? The hardest one to pedal, anyway) and I am away, faster than I can remember pedalling before, ringing my bell furiously and sending pedestrians and one squirrel scattering from the path.

After a couple of minutes I slow my pace – the road has long since levelled out and my speed is something more manageable, and glance back again. The men are nowhere to be seen. I’ve lost them, I think to myself. Free and clear. I leave the park and take to the side streets, dodging road bumps, traffic calming measures and school run mums in people carriers to arrive at Florizel Square, and the premises of Michael James Osmond Estate Agents.

I realise now I am out of breath and quite sweaty. Not exactly professional. I take a minute, compose myself, take the bottle of water from the basket and take a couple of sips. The adrenaline is fading somewhat now, as my breathing returns to normal and my body cedes control back to my brain, which is rarely a good move.

Clearly I should go to the police. Equally clearly, I should not. The men may well be government agents. Spooks. Clearly I should destroy the penguin pen drive and get on with my life. Clearly I should find the nearest internet cafe and upload The Truth to the world (and yes, it is The Truth, with capital letters, as I say it in my head). Equally clearly I should do no such thing as they will track me down somehow and execute me, extra-judicially. I read the Guardian. Sometimes. I do, online, most days, and I know these things happen. Extra-judicial executions. Clearly I have a number of options and equally clearly I have no idea which one to take.

I take another mouthful of water and look around. I might as well deliver the copy, then think about my career in international espionage later, I decide, by way of avoiding a decision. I walk up to Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, with its vile orange and pink facade (“it’s eye-catching Janey! Imagine the signs”), and walk inside. He is nowhere to be seen. Thank God.

Sam, the office dosgbody and ground zero for future sexual harassment suit lawyers, is. “Hi Janey. You bought the copy for the website?”

I hold up the penguin pen drive, and smile wanly. Sam smiles back, bless her, she has a hard life, she takes fun where and when and however she can. She tuns on the computer on the other desk. “Put it on his, he can send it from there,: she says, logging in with MIchael James Osmond’s login. I lean across the desk to insert the pen drive, and the door opens behind me. Please no, please don’t… ah, yes, a firm hand on my left buttock, bit of a squeeze, bit of a linger, I know it;s clammy and sweaty despite my woolen skirt. “Janey! Here you are you little minx! Got my copy, have you?”

I turn and grimace at MIchael James Osmond’s sweaty, leering face. You can’t punch him until after you’ve been paid – a rare outburst from the common sense of my brain, there, and I try and shift from grimace to smile. I suspect I fail.”Yes, Mike, copy, as promised, on deadline.”

“You’re a star, Sugartits,” he says. I must have physically shaken then, my spine recoiled. “Get it sorted, eh Sam?” He’s leaning over her, holding her shoulders and staring down her top. I mentioned, I think, the odious tic part? HIs hands slide down her. “Get it over to the boffins, eh?”

“Don’t worry, Mick, I can do it from here,” I say. “Won’t take a minute.”

Osmond, the foul toad, stops his hands just millimetres short of Sam’s cleavage, and straightens up. “Right you are, Sugartits. I’m off for a dump.” He waddles off, adjusting his crotch as he does so, into the back of the shop.

I move round to the keyboard, and open the other file on the penguin pen file. There;s a single text file, and a zip file. I open the text file and click on the single line – a link to wikiwhistle.org. I clock on upload, choose file, select the zip file on the penguin pen drive (the icon actually appears as a penguin on the desktop, for god’s sake) and click upload.

“Sam, love, you know you’re always saying you need another job?” I say. She looks at me, with those big sad brown eyes.

“Make today the day,” I say. Just walk away. Leave Mike to fend for himself.”

I copy Mike’s email address into the form on the site, and the IP address of the computer for good measure. The file has uploaded, and a message of thanks has appeared in Osmond’s email inbox. I delete it, eject the penguin pen drive, having copied the other file somewhere obscure on the hard drive, and deleted it off. I send a mail to the web developers with the copy, and get Sam to get my fee out of petty cash. I write a receipt, and give it to her. “Make today the day, eh Sam?”

I leave before Osmond has finished, clamber aboard Christabel and ride off, in the sunshine.

It’s a lovely day.

We could be heroes. But they are so much better at it.

After too long away from blogging, I return in a state of no little excitement. Knee-shaking, sweaty, trembling, excitement attends me at my every waking hour.

And the cause, of course, is my oldest and most faithful source of excitement – a darkened room, surrounded by strangers, anticipation, special foodstuffs – the cinema. Movies,  transporting me now to worlds of wonder today just as much as it ever did.

My excitement this time was engendered in a recent trip to the flicks (the flicks! Do they still call it that? Has digital technology robbed the argot of yet another generation?) with my Elder Daughter, to watch the excellent The Hunger Games. Wonderful as it was, it was the trailer that caught my pathetically future-focussed imagination, and that trailer was for The Avengers.

Superheroes. But not just any superheroes. Knowing, clever and witty superheroes, previously brought to the screen by Favreau and Branagh, spawned from the genius of Stan Lee, distilled through postmodernism to our cynical and needy age.

Thor (a boyhood favourite), Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and some other people, writ large and loud and magnificent and written and directed by the sublime genius who gave the world Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another super hero. I could barely eat my nachos.

Why do these people thrill me so? Latent homoeroticism aside, what is it about a tall, well muscled blond man brandishing a hammer (which has a name) that excites me so? What thrills me about a multi-millionaire arms dealer with a nuclear power station in his chest and updated armour? A leather clad Scarlett Johansson? Well, clearly, but what else?

I was recently reading John Kerr’s excellent A Dangerous Method, the story of the schism between Sigmund Freud and his initial acolyte and ultimate superior, Carl Gustav Jung, and much was made of Siegfied, myth, and magic.

Jung posited the idea of the collective unconscious, and archetypes – shared experiences which reside in the depths of our mind but resonate in the every day, and heroes play a huge part in this.

Throughout history we have had heroes – ancient Greece had Heracles, Perseus, Rome had Caesar, Albion had Arthur, Cymru had Glyndwr,  Hibernia Brian Boru, and so on, and so forth.

Today we have our comic book heroes – Superman, dragged from the genius of Nietzsche, perverted by history, and purified again by refugees from the progrom, Bruce Wayne donning the cowl to avenge his parents’ murder – a Jungian hero with Freudian baggage; from there to the panoply which now finds its current apotheosis in The Avengers.

Mankind needs heroes – to inspire, to remind us of why we bothered evolving beyond the apes. In a week when a lunatic rationalises mass murder in the land of Thor,  in a week when a venal, corrupt and unelected government wreaks more havoc in the name of oligarchical dogma, in a week when another hero, flawed but feted through the gifts of his feet sues the organisation which destroyed our belief in journalism, we need them more than ever.

So, I will go to the pictures with my Elder Daughter and I will watch ridiculous cyphers save the world from preposterous metaphors, and I will remind myself that we evolved enough to let someone with the wit and genius and intelligence of Joss Whedon do this for us.

And I will hope, once more.

Journalism: a lesson from his story

So, many years ago, a man with a preposterous moustache asked me “what do you want to do?”

I told him I wanted to be a journalist. When he finished laughing, he gave me leaflets on the army and university.

Three years later, a man without any facial hair I can remember told me to forget journalism and hit the milk round for the civil service – “a job for life”.

A year or so after that, I was finishing my post-grad diploma in journalism and being offered a job on a newspaper. After the interview, I went to the funeral of the man with the preposterous moustache, and thence to the pub. (Thence to the pub would be the watchword for the next several years).

I became a journalist, working on a much-respected local newspaper. I worked for 13 years, watching as the drive for profit and profit and more and more profit drove it from much-respected to a tawdry rag, filled with adverts and bought-in copy, me working a 50-hour week for a pittance no graduate could work for, to produce a worse and worse product.

The end came after my first daughter was born, and we realised the aforementioned pittance wouldn’t get us up to the sufficient rung on the property ladder. and  jacked it in for a job that pays a living wage.

I became a journalist for many reasons: the stock being it combined my only two natural talents of drinking and writing; the actual being something similar but also to make a difference, to bring down the corrupt and venal, challenge vested interest and champion the weak against the powerful.

As it happened, I wrote lots of great stuff, a hugely enjoyable stint as a cinema critic, interviewed prime ministers and pop stars, but failed miserably to expose any venal corruption or vested interest. But I became increasingly disillusioned with my profession.

Local newspapers are still, somehow, in the death throes that the drive for ridiculous profit, where advertisers were kings and journalists an expensive annoyance which started in the 90s. I’m astonished they lasted this long. What drove that was a bunch of feeble-minded cocks in suits with one poster boy – Rupert Murdoch.

Not much point going over how wrong he is, but his attitude, the mindset that took the Times from Fleet Street to Wapping, and took “The Market” from economist text books into the NHS has been the prevailing attitude in the political classes since 1979, and remains that way today.

It poisoned journalism, turned it from a pursuit of truth to a PR firm for profit; I recall cycling coverage on Sky Sports News: “Team Sky have come third” (no mention of who won); once the premiership rights were bought by Murdoch, his tabloids made the players stars in a ridiculous soap opera, in order to drive up the interest in the sport he had paid far too much to televise.

So the last edition of the first paper that Murdoch’s bought/asset-stripped, comes out today. It was the best-selling English language newspaper in the world, and it was utterly, utterly awful. Its exposed the foolish and credulous for their peers among the readership. It changed nothing, it merely provided the bread and circuses to distract the masses from what was really important, and created a word where what it said the public was interested in was the public interest.

I shed no tears for the News of the World, nor my erstwhile “colleagues” who worked upon it. Whatever replaces it will be just as bad, its raison d’etre will be the same and its end justify the means purpose will remain, because the black, cold heart at the centre is still Rupert’s, and all he cares about is making sure that the way the world works now makes him lots of money, and so it must continue.

And the Daily Bloody Mail is no different.

We’re all doomed.

Father away

Today is the made up holiday of Father’s Day, doubtless invented by card manufacturers and restaurateurs to squeeze yet more cash from us drones or something.

Cynicism aside, I cannot but reflect on being a Dad, and remember my own Dad, dead these 16 or so years, long burned and his ashes in the cold ground.

Being a Dad is the greatest thing I have ever done. Nothing I have ever experienced (and I think I have experienced a bit) comes close to the moment when my first child grabbed my finger, or when I held my second child, untimely wripped, in a blanket, tiny and small.

Since then they have given me nothing but joy. Joy and desperation and anger and pride and frustration and pleasure and fear and terror and astonishment and laughter and tears and worry and all those many, many things that “nothing” becomes in these cliches. But joy, and pride.

Whenever anyone I know announces imminent parenthood, my only meaningful advice is to let them know that once you are a parent, you cannot remember not being a parent. You can remember stuff you did, places you went, clothes you wore, things you did, but you cannot remember being – being – anything other than a parent.

Today I also try and remember being a son. My Dad, at some point a long time ago suddenly realised he couldn’t recall being a teacher’s son from Blackwood and could only recall being the father of a chubby blond boy from Manchester. I’m sure he did, just never got the chance to ask him about it.

My Dad never had any time for Father’s Day, ignored it at best, angry with it at worst. Good for him. Wish I had the innate irascibility to carry it through myself, but it’s more ingrained now.

So I recall my first (legal) pint. My first book (Goon Show Scripts. I was three). Walking Offa’s Dyke footpath the same summer that I Don’t Like Mondays was number 1. Being kept up to watch Python and Qs 7-9, at least. Watching a rugby team (no idea which) playing in red and shouting “Cymru am byth!” a barrel pint glass of lemonade in my hand.

I recall an impromptu lecture to a group of fellow ramblers in the Peak District when one asked why the cliff was reddy-brown, I recall fear and distance and anger and love, and most of all I recall carrying a very heavy wooden box on my shoulder and knowing it was too bloody soon to be doing that. Hardly got to know the man, only had 28 years.

I raise a glass to my Dad, and to being a Dad. And it makes me very happy.

Alternatively…

Water splashed down the walls, pooling on the floor, some forming into puddles, some running in rivulets across the floor, then the water changed, became red, incardine, sticky, thick, and then I awoke, screaming.

I live in permanent dread that I will walk into one of the toilets at work and will find that one of my co-workers, one of my colleagues, has chosen to take his own life in that toilet, in a bloody and horrific way.

To get to the toilets, I have to walk up or down a flight of stairs, and then push open a thick, heavy door – above it a grill lets you know if the light is on; usually it is dark.

I walk in and hit the light,  then every time, expect my next step to be into a pool of  congealed ichor, poured from the throat of some fellow wage-slave who has, bravely, realised there is nothing more and his is the only way to say something – say anything.

He has taken the only pair of scissors you can now order from the official stationery catalogue, and used it to snip (snip, yes, only snip will do – no sever or slice or split, snip, and snip alone) his carotid artery. Exsanguination.

It is an act of will. Not an act of resignation or of cowardice, or of fear, or of desperation. No, this opening of a vital tube with a piece of approved, pre-ordained and appropriate piece of equipment is an act which screams to the heavens “I will be heard”. I WILL. BE. HEARD. In my last act, I will state something, which will go beyond my life and echo into eternity. At last I have said something.

The next step, I open my eyes as the florescent tubes click and flicker into life, and there is no blood; there is no sticky pool of crimson life leaked from the throat of a hapless co-worker, there is only tiled, clean floor. A scrap of paper towel there, a smut of bog roll there.

Every time, this happens. Every time I go in, no-one has made that choice, no-one has taken that step, made that statement. I work with cowards. Why can no-one express, with one brutal and beautiful act, how we are all feeling? Why can no-one impose a sense of free will on the inevitable? Why do they live?

They live,  I realise, as I do: to bear testament. If I chose that path, if I was noble, brave and brutal and beautiful, who would be there to record that fact? What I would do would be a tale, but a tale is nothing unless someone tells it.

I shall narrate, relate, bear witness the pointlessness and absurdity, I will report their stand, their magnificence, I will carry what they choose to do to the rest of the world.

But they don’t.

And I can’t.

And they can’t.

And I don’t.

Which is probably for the best.

In a minute

They say anything can change, in a second. Which is fine, because he has at least 60 of them. If things can change in a split second – well that’s even better, he has plenty more. Plenty more.

He has a minute. Sixty (minimum) opportunities to live. He lies in the grass, knees pulled up underneath his chest, his shell suit bagging and clinging to his sweating, hard-breathing body. Next to him, touching him, another, wearing the same, feeling the same, same shell suit pulled up as his knees pull up to his chest, and another each side, and another, and another.

Seven of them lie, pulled out of the line of refugees, the endless queue of humanity leaving the shelling of Srebrenica, trying to find somewhere else – not somewhere better or different, merely somewhere that you don’t die on the streets. Somewhere with odds. Not even better odds. Just odds rather than the certainty that awaited them there.

Now, lying on the verge, he has 40 seconds, two thirds of a minute, to escape. The seven on the grass wear shell suits in preposterous shades,  garish pinks and purples and greens and yellows and blues, screaming from the white mass, unnatural against the green of the grass they lie against now.

The men standing above them are in green and brown, the clothing of soldiers. They are neither men, no soldiers. They are beneath both. Bullies, at best. Anti-humans,  in actuality, the opposite of humanity, those who take it away from others for no other reason that they can. They carry AK-47s, no, they don’t carry them, they prod and poke and bully and beat with them. Push with the nozzle, if that doesn’t scare enough, a slam with the butt.

They laugh, these antihumans. Pull themselves together, uniting themselves with a stolen human trope, taking it from those they prey on, reducing them, in their minds, reducing themselves far more, oblivious and stupid and wrong, but too scared to realise, thinking only through the strength that the guns give them. They laugh, they slide back the bolts and take aim.

He lies. Next to him, his anonymous neighbour, has pissed himself and is biting his lip so hard not to cry that blood travels down his chin, splashing as silent sobs wrack his body. The piss goes into the grass, seeping into his trouser leg. He had 60 seconds,  to make a difference. He has 30 now.

Trigger finger. Tightens.

Click.

Fake, it is a fake execution, the laughing was because of a joke. They laugh,  again, these antihumans. Comedy discovered in a place with no joy, no laughter, no fun. What place has it here? No time, they get up. “Back in line” the chief antihuman says. He’s the chief because his AK-47 is slung over his shoulder, his hand just has a glock.

They stand up. In turn. He is fourth,  he has 20 seconds left. He stands, just as one, two and three lie back down, the safety off and the magazines returned, the rounds back in the chamber. Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Pick him up, carry him to the ditch”

10 seconds.

His hands slip, the blood offering no purchase on the slick polyester.

5 seconds.

“Fuck you”. The AK-47 barks. Dark. Cold. Nothing.

Anything can change in a second. He missed it. By a minute.

Well schooled

It was the day before the gymkhana. Everyone in the riding school was making things shine. Saddles were soaped, bridles brilliant, bits burnished, fetlocks fettled and shoes shone.

The clear favourite for the trophy was the only daughter of the riding school’s owner – Sally, 13-year-old scion of the Featherstone clan; the other last remaining being Fiona Featherstone, her mother.

Fiona had kept her surname through at least three marriages, and had happily avoided divorce by outliving each of those husbands. Sally was her one mistake, the only blot on her copybook, and the plaintiff in a failed lawsuit against the London Rubber Company. But still, she had to win.

Against her was the girl with talent, the girl with drive and hunger and ability – Shanice, inflicted upon the riding schools by a bizarre confluence of the Prince’s Trust, the local social services, and an early stab at the Big Society by a leader of the council who saw exactly where New Labour, and subsequent government, was heading.

Shanice was beautiful, intelligent and hugely disadvantaged by circumstance and happenstance. She had a natural empathy with the horses at the riding school, despite never having seen a horse in real life until the day the adviser from the charity had come along to the pupil referral unit in which she was placed for “her own safety” after the “incident” at school.

Eschewing the first four choices offered – catering, stewarding at the Arena, the umbrella factory and hairdressing, Shanice had fallen into default to mucking out and grooming the horses at the Featherstone Riding School, positioned by an accident of geography, death duties, lax green belt supervision and arrant bribery, just round the corner from her social housing unit, in what used to be a council estate.

Sally was not focused. Her sense of entitlement and 14 years  riding gave her a confidence beyond her actual abilities; she had a deep-set sense of contempt engendered by years of as single role model, who relied on wealth and fear to achieve everything she did. She expected the world to bend to her will, because it always had. Thus, she entered the show ring, ready for her round across the tiny jumps, astride the most expensive equine mammal in the school – Jongleur, sired by a Grand National each way bet and Sally’s childhood pony.

Shanice, on the other hand, rode Bramble, re-homed to the riding school from a rescue society. Bramble was considered recalcitrant, surly, even. But Bramble and Shanice had formed a bond, somehow, through months of grooming; brushing, pitchforking and shovelling shit, and talking, walking and riding, until two became one.

Into the ring, and Sally hit two fences on the way around; nominally eight faults, but a time of two minutes and fifty-three seconds. She sat back in the saddle, satisfied, patting Jongleur’s neck.

Shanice took to the ring – whispered into Bramble’s ear, and then a clear round, two mites forty-eight. A clear winner, she galloped delighted out of the ring, high-fiving the girls from the estate who had lined the paddock to watch the competition.

She spent the night on a cloud, unable to sleep, so excited and waiting until the morning when she would make sure the rosettes were on Bramble’s stable door, and he trophy ready to take home and put on the one single shelf in her living room.

As she walked in, Fiona Featherstone called her over: “get out, you common little bitch. You’re fired. Know your place. It’s that side of the fence.” And she was gone. Trophies next to all the others on the three above Sally’s custom-made bed, the rosettes on  Jongleur’s stable door,  Bramble off to the glue factory.

Two years later, Fiona was dead, crashing a horsebox as she tried to overtake a caravan on the A59 on her way to Skipton for a show. Alone, Sally went into care, her mother’s wealth trapped in a web of probate, to come out yet later bitter and penniless. She became a riding instructor in a council-run school in Lambeth.

Shanice went back into catering, and by a chain of coincidence, hard work and happenstance, found herself a sous chef in a two-star kitchen in central Lancs. The BBC needed a new star for their annual chef talent show and Shanice, ticking every box on the man’s diversity list, hit it running, Her pudding made the final course. Her cook book made her money, and she bought a horse.

She called him Bramble.