Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Upon Owning A Zeppelin

I live in a Zeppelin, you know. I do. I got her way back in '97 off some guy who called himself Alf. Swapped her straight up for a timeshare in Tenerife. I always hated Tenerife.

You could say it's liberating. The commute to work is short, or you know, long if I fancy that. The views are good too. Except when it’s raining. Then it’s a problem because it’s hard to escape the rain when it’s all about you. I don't really have to pay bills although the government hasn't yet extended me the courtesy of a Winter Fuel Allowance. I think I’m right in their target demographic – running a Zeppelin is not cheap.

Weirdly, trying to get reception on the telly is a bit hit and miss as well.

Oh hey, you wanna know what my buddies always go on about? Parking fines. I know. Out of all the cool stuff about owning a Zeppelin, they talk about parking fines.

“Hey Mike,” says Pete or Steve as we hit the bar on a Wednesday night, “Got a parking permit yet?” Always with the parking permit joke. It wasn’t funny the first time, Pete or Steve.

“And what's the legal limit for driving a Zepp?” will immediately follow from someone else (usually Gary), and then laughter from the rest.

“Beer's on Mike!” is the chorus before I can chime in with all the air safety regulations and the potential penalties and fines for Piloting A Zeppelin Whilst Intoxicated. Yeah, that’s my buddies.

But you'd think that it'd be easy, wouldn't you? Visiting the family, getting the groceries – just pull up above the place and drop the ladder, job done. Yeah, right. Have you ever tried to refuel a floating Zeppelin in high winds? Tricky stuff, I assure you - she lists like a mother during the fuel transfer.

And you know how my buddies are always on about the parking? Well let me tell you, just because I have a flying house doesn’t mean it’s a picnic. There's always someone out to get you. Maybe they feel inadequate because they're on a scooter and it's raining, or perhaps just that the Zepp is taller than their SUV. I dunno. And London's just a nightmare – the streets are too narrow and you’ve got all these air traffic controllers getting all picky about their airspace. It's not exactly overcrowded in the centre of London, is it? I just want to go to Hamley’s.

This one time, right, I went to get the beers and some snacks for the Christmas party and a gust of wind blew the Zepp over a disabled parking bay. I came out the supermarket and there's this woman in a Spacewagon honking her horn.

“Hey lady, what's up?” I said, politely I thought.

“Someone's left a ladder in the disabled bay. I need to park there - I have the badge on my dashboard, look.” She jabbed a stubby finger at the badge. This woman looked about as disabled as me, just way fatter.

“Sorry, that'll be the Zeppelin. Must've been the wind – I'll move it right now.” I started to walk off, groceries in hand.

“Do you take me for some kind of idiot?” Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel ever more tightly. “A Zeppelin? Is this your ladder then?” Please don’t eat me.

“Yeah it's my ladder, but like I said it's attached to a Zeppelin, so...” She lowered her eyebrows and looked like she was about to charge. I changed tack quickly. “Listen, I'm sorry my ladder's in the way. Have a mince pie and I'll move it.”

Reaching into my bag, I tossed her a fresh mince pie. She caught it in her pudgy little hands and stuffed it straight into her mouth, struggling to shovel and breathe at the same time. It wasn't till later that I realised just how small her mouth was in comparison to the rest of her; a tiny cave in the side of a great mountain of flesh.

It looked like most of the mince pie had ended up in her lap. What a waste. But it seemed to do the trick; her rage was sated, if not her appetite.

I left without a word and allowed the Zepp to take off while I was still on the ladder. I always thought I looked quite the hero in this pose, one hand wrapped around a ladder rung, the other holding my plastic shopping bags. As we floated upwards I saw the fat woman's mouth fall open and yet more mince pie tumble out. Had she swallowed any of it?

Still, it was just one mince pie, and it was the season of good will after all.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


I think some people genuinely thought I would live forever. 93 years old, well over 200 films – Was a man like that truly just a man, or something greater? Yes, in the minds of some, Donald Sutherland was destined to go on and on. But of course I was - am - just a man and after 93 years, 7 months and 12 days my weary body finally succumbed to the demands of time. I died peacefully in my big old house amongst the auburn leaves of Vermont, my dog mourning me at my bedside. I found out later that over 2000 people had attended my funeral in the wind and sideways rain.

Depending on what you believe, you might expect to end up in glory or in damnation, perhaps Nirvana, or even just to rot in the ground. None of these applied to me, it would seem. The next thing I knew I was alive and well - in a way - entombed immortal in a 2 tonne sarcophagus wrought from carbon fibre, Kevlar and steel.

In a flush of youthful enthusiasm I had, some 60 years earlier, turned my future corpse over to the forlorn hope that was cryonics: Be frozen until such a time when I could be successfully reanimated and reintegrated into society. Now, this was all very Messianic and somehow fitting for an arrogant 30-something riding the crest of his 1960's Hollywood stardom. However it did not really figure as I lay in my bed dying of old age, irritable bowel syndrome, and in no small measure a broken heart. I passed peacefully in my sleep on a Tuesday evening and woke up again on a Wednesday morning, 8 days later.


The whole thing was rather surreal at first, I'll admit. No, not being alive – though that was confusing as well. I woke up, opened my eyes and as I looked around in disbelief I simply felt numb. I tried to move my arms but could feel nothing, and the same with my legs. It wasn't like I was tied down or restrained in any way - I just didn't feel anything at all. Nothing. But I did not panic.

“Mr Sutherland,” said a man whose face I didn't recognise, “My name is Dr Hounslow.” He didn't look much like a doctor to me, and this didn't look much like a hospital. More like a warehouse or some kind of loading bay. Bare metal floors, brutal strip lighting, and there was I in the centre of a hasty clearing. The strange new man bustled past me with his feet clanging on the floor and I thought I should be cold, but I wasn't. “Right Mr Sutherland,” said this doctor guy eventually, checking computer screens and printouts arranged about me, “If you'll just bear with me.”

Bear with him?

“Bear with you?” But no sound came out. I asked again, and again, but I couldn't feel my lips and I couldn't hear myself speak.

“Hold on Mr Sutherland, I'll just enable the voice transceivers.”


“WHAT?” I boomed suddenly, my voice reverberating around the room. He looked startled and turned a dial anti-clockwise.

“The voice transceivers – to decode your voice print and thought patterns from Broca's Area – where speech comes from.” And then he paused. “Ah. I think I'd better explain.”

“I think you'd better had.” This time I was very slightly quieter.

And so, Dr Hounslow reminded me of that time in an anonymous office in a downtown clinic that I signed away my death. 1967. Such a long time ago – he wasn't even born. I could of course have opted out again, but to be frank I simply forgot. They were just honouring the last wishes I had expressed regarding the matter. Dr Hounslow then apologised for the somewhat clinical nature of my awakening.

“Most people know exactly what they're letting themselves in for and aren't disorientated at all,” he said with a shrug, and that was that. I always thought his bedside manner left something to be desired. He explained that, given my status (and the comparatively small number of willing participants in the program) I had been selected to be experimentally installed in the prototype exoskeleton.

At this point, I had no idea what a 'prototype exoskeleton' was. He directed my gaze to a series of screens displaying the views seen by several cameras trained on me. I had paid them no notice before, as I did not see the relevance of a bunch of monitors focussed on a huge, shiny black ellipse. From ground to tip it – Me, as it turned out – was easily 8 feet high and was made of a sleek and impossibly hard black material. Not really metal but not plastic either - I've never managed to truly understand it.

There was an elegance in the finish, the gentle curves – an aesthete would find me appealing I'm sure, albeit in an “enormous hulking robot” way. Remember that time you first watched 2001 and saw the monoliths? I am an egg monolith.

The whole construction seemed to rest delicately on 4 legs, which I was assured were actually in no way delicate but could kick down a brick wall if I so desired. At that point I couldn't imagine quite why anyone would want to kick down a brick wall, but it was comforting to know it was possible. The whole thing looked faintly ridiculous, as you might imagine, but apparently it – sorry, I - was the cutting edge of technology. I suppose I still am the cutting edge of technology, but I'll get to that in a bit.

“So, I'm inside this thing?”

“Well, your consciousness is – and that's what matters.” He chuckled. I did not chuckle back. My body, of course, had been legitimately buried in front of those 2000 people I told you about, but it was my brain – my thoughts, my personality – that had been saved. Like saving a file to a USB stick, he informed me.

So he was comparing my brain, the summation of everything I had ever experienced, thought, seen or done, the core of my identity, to a file on a computer?

Yes, yes he was.

And that was that really. They encouraged me to try to live a normal life, to interact, to contribute. But what would they know about being 'normal'? Have they ever been encased in a giant black egg with enough lifting power to throw a truck? No, they have not. I can't go for a meal in a restaurant, play the piano, enjoy a scotch; I can't even do any more movies. So explain to me just how I'm supposed to go back to living a 'normal' life?

About a year after this event (It always seems odd to say 'a year after my death') I left Vermont and decided to go New Mexico. I stomped through West Virginia and lingered near Kentucky, before splashing around the Mississippi for a while. In general I dawdled about and took in the sights. Never before had I been able to travel with such freedom and such alacrity. All the relevant authorities knew about me so I was rarely bothered, and in general I stayed out of the limelight and away from the more densely populated areas. It was glorious. Some people were shocked, sure – imagine how you might react to the silhouette of an 8 foot high egg padding through your corn field at dawn. Thankfully my outer shell is completely impervious to shotgun rounds.

Sometimes I would turn to the humans and proudly exclaim “It's OK! I'm the ghost of Donald Sutherland!” They would see my face projected on the front of the chassis and either nod and go inside, or be completely freaked. Ha!

This all happened 900 years ago though. If nothing else, I would say time is certainly on my side.

I haven't seen much of anyone in the last, say, 400 years. In 2517 I stood on a remote outcrop in the Rocky mountains with my vision set to 500x Zoom (Flash Suppressor Enabled) and watched as mankind accidentally and repeatedly nuked itself from orbit. I heard the cries of the innocent and felt the heat and percussive repeats of the explosions; The human race managed to wipe itself out almost entirely in under a day. It was morbidly exhilarating to be buffeted by the nuclear winds and to feel the gentle rain of fallout ash on my carapace, as soft and perversely pure as a snowfall.

When you've been around as long as I have, you'll learn to appreciate the little things.

A few years later I made friends with a fox cub. I happened to be in a forest in Yellowstone when I heard (Or rather, my medium-range sensors alerted me to) a creature barking and screaming, being attacked by a bear or something else huge and grotesque. I tramped over to see what was going on out of macabre curiosity. I arrived in the thicket some ten minutes later but the assailants were gone and the mother was as good as dead. Guts hanging out, blood trickling from her mouth, eyes glazing over – there was nothing to be done. I crushed her head under my foot and she died in an instant.

Only then as I turned to leave did I see her cub hiding in a tree stump. The cub looked up at me with her innocent eyes and I stared back. She did not seem afraid, but simply curious. Dismissively I turned and stomped off, partly because I value my solitude and partly from shame at what I had done. But the cub followed me. I passed through a cutting and began to splash along a small brook, and few minutes later I turned to find this little fox cub still scampering along behind me, skipping from bank to bank, tail raised high in delight. Soon I left the stream and headed up a nearby hill, and still she followed. Eventually I paused at a pleasant vantage point high above the forest; the cub appeared beside me and rested on her haunches. Together we watched the sunset.

And so we stayed together for a time. I helped her hunt when she needed it, and let her use my great hulking form as a shelter from the elements. My hull was not as gleaming nor as elegant as it used to be – a millennium of hard use had left its surface slightly dulled, and if you looked very carefully you might even find the odd scratch. But I generally went where I wanted to, and mostly the cub followed. Sometimes she would disappear for days and then spring herself upon me in surprise, miles away from where we had parted company. She would run around and through my four stumpy metal legs and I could feel her fur brush against my sensors and her tail sweep past my actuators. Hello large machine, she seemed to say, I missed you.

A tired old man like me doesn’t want for much. One evening she curled up into the cleft of my foot and just dozed there for a while. I didn't dare move for fear of waking her. As we basked together in the late summer sun, I almost felt human.

Image by Jim Unwin

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


    Stefan pressed his back against the rough wall, scrawny legs tucked up to his chest with his fingers locked around them. It was cold and he was tired, and he could not sleep in this dusty carriage. He wanted to be home and be tucked in bed and have Mama reading him a story and stroking his hair. But she wasn't here, and he wasn't at home. Shivering, he hugged his legs tighter still.
    “Papa?” Stefan ventured again. Opening his mouth filled his lungs with the stink of the dead and the dying, and so he didn't speak very much. No-one did.
    “Boy?” came the soft reply. Papa was slumped over in the corner.
    “Papa where are we going?” Stefan asked, for the hundredth time.
    “I don't know. No-one knows. We won't find out until we get there.”
    “I love you.”
    “I love you, too.”
    The silence hung in the air, and in the dark someone began to cough into their coat.
    “I'm scared.”
    “I'm scared, too.”
    The train rattled on and Stefan peered at his father. He looked so old, now. His skin fell pale against his cheekbones, draped like bits of old school books, where his proud features used to be. His lips were dry and cracked, his dirty hair fell tangled to his nose. But this stranger was still Papa, still his Papa. His eyes! They sparkled at him fiercely blue whenever they spoke, winking out I Love You in the dimness of the carriage.
    Somewhere beyond, a girl began to sob. Stefan could not see who or where she was and so he imagined that it was Analiese. But he didn't like that very much, and besides he knew it was not her. It could not be Analiese and it could not be Mama.
    “Stop crying,” rasped an invisible voice. She did not stop. “Stop it!”
    “Leave her alone,” breathed Papa.
    “What's it got to do with you old man?” the voice replied sharply.
    “I'm not... old.” Papa began to cough, but tried to hide it in the sleeve of his thin jacket. He pulled himself upright and the coughing subsided and Stefan did not know what to do to help him. A shadow moved slowly across the carriage and suddenly without warning a boot crashed into Papa's chest.
    “Papa!” Stefan cried out, but he did not move. The boot hit Papa in the chest again, and again. He screamed and slumped back against the wall, eyes gazing at the unseen attacker, pleading. Why are you doing this?
    “Please,” Stefan saw Papa's eyes stare through him, “My son.” Why didn't he do anything? But Papa could not move and he could hardly breathe, and the boot smashed into him again. This time something gave way, but it was not Papa. The lowest plank of the carriage wall creaked and groaned and the boot kicked Papa again and the plank cracked and the boot hit him again and the plank broke. Sunlight streamed gloriously through the hole, but Stefan could only look on at his Papa gasping for breath and he had never seen him like this before. His eyes weren't shining like they should but glistened wet. In the warmth of the fresh sun, Papa wept.
    “Stefan?” The boot had stopped kicking now, and the shadow had retired. Now Stefan could move, and he scuttled over to where his Papa was sprawled on the floor. No one else had moved to help, or even seemed to notice. People just like him and Papa sat or lay about, exhausted and weak just the same, but no-one would do anything. “Stefan,” Papa repeated quietly through the tears so quietly, “It's time to go. I'm so sorry.”
    Papa brought his head level to Stefan and looked at him square on.
    “I love you so much.”
    Stefan clung to his Papa and begged for time to go backwards. The older man breathed heavily into the nape of his neck as they hugged each other, but the train carried on clattering and the dust carried on swirling. Then without warning Stefan felt himself shoved towards the hole and he was through and then he was flying through the air, and the sun blazed hot on his skin again. As he rolled into the cool soft grass at the side of the track he turned and saw Papa's face disappear into the darkness, eyes sparkling like before.
    Papa, Stefan mouthed, I love you.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 3

Four days passed. McLean had been dividing his time between his bunk and the arboretum; The hydrangeas were flourishing. Only occasionally would he venture onto the bridge of the ship to check things were still running smoothly - they were. The computer had everything under control, as usual, and the humans aboard were still just cargo, still just along for the ride. On the fourth day, after an uninspiring breakfast of Oatmeal Foodtube and Orange Juice Drinktube, McLean sat on his bed gazing out of the small circular viewport above his head. He smiled as he remembered for a moment the last real meal he'd eaten, made from ingredients that didn't have to remain edible for the next two years. And then, Foodtubes.

The languid spin of the craft made focussing on anything for longer than half a minute or so tricky, but over the last ten rotations he was sure he had spotted something new. A previously unseen object winked at him weakly from across the depths of the inky black.

McLean dragged his naked feet briefly across the cold metal floor and slid them into his comforting and worn brown slippers he had brought all the way from Earth, all that time ago. They had become his regular footwear soon after departing Mars, after all what was the point of wearing shoes if you never went outside? The soft material reminded him of the soft floors, and soft skin, of home. He sloped towards the Viewing Room, a room containing a single large screen and a quartet of plush velvet chairs.

He flicked the light switch and the room brightened to a comforting half-light. Dark walls illuminated sordidly by yellow uplights; this homage was missing only the slow coil of cigarette smoke. McLean had always imagined that whomever designed this particular room was a frustrated home cinema enthusiast, barely stopping short of providing surround sound and a popcorn dispenser at the back. Flopping down into one of the deep chairs, he lazily manipulated the control column for the external camera array and panned the view to centre roughly on the distant craft. McLean locked the cameras onto it to compensate for the ship's rotation, and stepped through the magnification levels. Five times, ten times, one hundred times - the white blink now resembled a small comet with a fiercely bright nose and a long blue-white tail behind it.

McLean snorted derisively to himself. Looking closer still, he could make out a tiny sphere at the front of a long cylinder which was presumably the ion whatsit. That sphere can't have provided particularly agreeable living, but then no nuclear missile was ever built for its creature comforts. He sat back in his comfortable chair, allowing the massage function to work its undeniable magic, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the incalculable genius that decided massage chairs were indispensable in the advancement of spaceflight.

He didn't dare magnify the image any further in case it transpired Bryant really was wearing a Stetson.

He flicked on the chair intercom. "Bartlett?"

"Here Commander!" came the bright reply.

"Put me through to the One Child Policy, please." Bartlett acknowledged and in a few seconds she signalled that the channel was ready to transmit. McLean hadn't really thought about what he might say at this juncture - he was almost slightly surprised at himself for seeking out communication with the unwelcome intruders. But Intruder is such a strong word, he thought. After all, space is pretty big. There's plenty of room for both of us. What about Interloper, or even Tourist? But, McLean acknowledged privately, this should have been his big bit of space.

Yes, he was being petulant, and Yes he was being difficult, but he had enjoyed being on the only inhabited ship to experience this area of space - such as it was - first hand. Now suddenly he felt crowded, his private resort overtaken by towel-bearing German tourists.

"Hello One Child Policy," he stated. Not a question.

"Well hello!" came the easy reply. McLean didn't need to ask who he was speaking with, after all who else could it be?

"How's things going over there?" McLean's interest was piqued by pangs of jealousy - had he now been relegated to the B Team?

"Well there's never much room to move around," Bryant answered dismissively, "But we're still accelerating and I think we're on schedule!" He thinks?

McLean paused for a second. Two seconds. Three.

"I've been meaning to ask, actually," he pondered aloud in measured tones, "What exactly is your schedule?" McLean knew his own ship's schedule intimately and was morbidly keen to learn how the two craft stacked up. With three months left to travel to reach the Rally Point, he wondered exactly how B Team was he?

"Well you know, it's not long at all! Here, let me check." How could Bryant not know this? "About 3 weeks."

Bugger. It. All.

McLean flicked off the intercom and sloped off to talk to his hydrangeas.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 2

A day later the light was blinking noticeably faster, and the screen underneath it ticked over with the results of the sensor's mass spectrometry. A small craft, much smaller than their own, but following a near identical course and at much greater speed. The craft had halved the distance between them. McLean had strewn his lanky frame sideways across the angular pilot's seat, legs flopping over one arm of the chair and his back perched awkwardly against the other. He really was too big to be sitting like this both in size and years, and quite frankly, he thought, it would be more comfortable to just sit up. He did not move, but instead reached across to the old tape player stuck to the edge of the control panel and pressed play. Johnny Cash lilted out of the tinny speaker and McLean shut his eyes. He cared little for this "anomaly" but just wanted to arrive at the Rally Point in peace, and hopefully stay there for a time, in peace. Then he would eventually return home an International Hero, and all would be well.

The faint crackling on the ship's speaker was at first barely audible above The Man In Black's sombre tones. Steadily the signal it grew stronger however and the static became fainter, and as Folsom Prison Blues drew to a close McLean could not deny that they were being hailed.

Laconically he beeped back once - ready and willing to receive a message. Ordinarily, a man sixteen months into a trip with only three others for company would be craving another voice, another companion, or at the very least be desperately curious. McLean was reticent; this would be some kind of unwanted intrusion, invading upon his serenity. Of course it would probably be a Chinese craft, and then the interruption would be short and likely violent. But, accepted McLean, what was to be done about that?

"WSC Long Distance Relationship, Long Distance Relationship, do you read me?" came the faint distorted voice. Not a Chinese voice after all, but a long Texan drawl. McLean's heart actually sank and the gears in his brain started to grind.

"This is she," was the reply. A long pause.

"This is the WSC One Child Policy, approximately two million miles distant," crackled the voice. The ship relayed the encrypted handshake codes and signalled success. The identification checked out.

"I know how far away you are, thank you." Silence. Perhaps they had been expecting someone a little more verbose this far away from home. McLean pondered through the silence, however. What was another Western Space Coalition ship doing out here? These missions didn't just happen without years of planning, billions of dollars. As the silence dragged on and on over the radio waves, McLean furrowed his brow and considered. What the hell were these cowboys doing tearing up space behind him? "Repeat your name and ident please?" he finally muttered, almost to himself.

"Yup this is the WSC
One Child Policy and I'm her Commander, Rusty Bryant." Rusty? Figures.

"And Rusty, what exactly are you doing all the way out here, if you don't mind me asking?" queried McLean. There was a brief pause.

"Well I assumed you knew that Commander McLean," came the measured reply. A ripple of doubt swelled through McLean's thoughts.

"Enlighten me."

"Well we're the test flight for the ion reactor!" exclaimed Bryant suddenly and jubilantly, "They set you off way back when, and then a coupla months back they set us off! We're in a big race!" Yeah, except no-one told this crew we were under starter's orders, thought McLean.

"And what of this race?" he shot back. Ion reactor?

"Well, either way the WSC beats the Chinese - either you get there and we don't get there at all, or we get there faster!"

Oh great, a Texan with a death wish. This would explain how they could be going quite so fast, and appear to still be accelerating. McLean wondered exactly what kind of speeds ship with an ion reactor was capable of reaching. It was a technology he knew a very little about - the theory, at least - but he never thought it would come to fruition during his lifetime, let alone during his trip. His trip! He was supposed
to be the first one to Jupiter, not this disembodied Stetson.

The theory of the ion reactor was simple - Heat up argon or something similar with some science and make an ion beam (The details had always escaped him), heat the beam up to a million degrees or thereabouts and you have an engine that can accelerate forever. Simple. Simple in theory but apparently devilishly hard to make work in practice. But someone somewhere had done it, in secret, and here we are. An impossible engine capable of unbelievable speeds, and McLean had the honour of being the one to be overtaken by it. The peace of his private pilgrimage rudely cut short by a nuclear bomb with a Texan strapped on the front.

"And what's with the name anyway?" McLean was genuinely curious now but he was greeted with static as his only reply. "Hey! The name?" he inquired as he thumbed the Transmit key back and forth. However, slowly the gain died down and the static resolved to a gentle fuzz. He stared at the communicator for a minute or so, willing it to reply, but it steadfastly refused. Eventually he flicked off the speaker and trudged back to his bunk.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 1

McLean idly watered the tub of hydrangeas, humming to himself. The arboretum was constantly humid and the climate maintained precisely, so there was no real need for him to be here; but doing things yourself can be so therapeutic. One of the reasons he was all the way up - out - here was to get away from it all, but sometimes even that became too much and he had to get away once more.

Tending to the flowers helped to soothe his busy mind: They can't talk back, and they always seem to thrive on listening. Now however, the chamber was almost silent save for his humming and the hiss of the sprinkler system; the warm glow of the heater lamps made a welcome change from the clinical walkways and gantries of the rest of the ship. Perhaps he should put some peonies in a vase for the Bridge?

Drops of moisture condensed on his face and began dripping off the end of his nose - his damp black hair was plastered to his forehead, and for the last few minutes his attempts to puff it out of his eyes had been in vain. He blustered upwards once more and blew water into his eyes.


"Yes?" McLean sighed deeply, aware that his reverie had come to an end.

"How are the hydrangeas?" Bartlett had this unsettling habit of trying to put him at ease with an irrelevant opening gambit.

"The hydrangeas are fine, thank you Stephanie. They are blue, as expected," he raised his eyebrows, "and growing uncommonly well for this time of year." He sighed again and examined the dirt-stained fingertips of his gardening gloves. So much for a day of solitude. "How may I help you?" he said, looking up.

"Well Commander," Bartlett answered, hesitantly. Had she sensed she was unwelcome? "One of the proximity alarms is firing. Would you care to take a look?" In truth, no. But he was in charge, and so, Yes. McLean nodded somberly and tossed his gardening gloves to the floor.

"Let's go."

He sloped wearily along the walkway that fed through the centre of Arm B of the spacecraft WSC Long Distance Relationship and Bartlett, a good foot shorter than him, scuttled along beside. Halfway down, McLean paused at one of the viewports and gazed out at the hull still 150 metres away, and beyond into the black. Would he ever get tired of looking into that distant nothing?

"Please Commander, I'm a bit anxious," Bartlett stressed, looking up at him through worried eyes. She was often a bit anxious, so this gave McLean little cause for concern. They walked on.

Commander Anthony McLean and Stephanie Bartlett were two of the four person crew aboard the spacecraft, and it frustrated McLean that even after sixteen months he was yet to persuade Bartlett to call him by his first name. Their mission was purportedly "of historic importance" and "a vital strategic milestone", but he had long since come to terms with the reality - that it was motivated by petty rivalries and long standing jealousy. It was the dubious honour of McLean and his crew to be the first humans destined to inhabit The Jupiter Rally Point, mankind's deepest large scale foray into the Solar System. This space station had been assembled autonomously over the last ten years at near incalculable expense by what had become known as the Western Space Coalition, and even as they were in flight final preparations were being made by the sizeable force of automata in attendance.

The Western Space Coalition was really a worldwide conglomerate of nations, monikered Western merely as a poke in the eye to the Chinese, who still resolutely refused to be part of anything involving the Americans. The ribaldry had continued in earnest, both sides taking cheap shots at the other for no discernible reason or advancement. The West had established the first inhabited base on the moon, the Chinese the first on Mars. The next logical step, in the eyes of the controlling forces of the WSC at least, was an outpost even further out: The Jupiter Rally Point. McLean always felt a sinking feeling inside when he considered this quite frankly ridiculous outcome.

The problems began - if you can really consider this a beginning - when it turned out that the Chinese had planned all along to allow the Rally Point to be built, and then take it over by force. The space station was never designed as a weapons platform (Upon whom would the weapons be trained while orbiting Jupiter?) and so in reality would be all but defenceless. And so the schedule was accelerated, and sixteen months previously the construction of the WSC Long Distance Relationship was completed to a not inconsiderable fanfare.

In truth, she was an odd looking craft, and McLean always wondered where the aesthetic design budget went during its construction. Three arms extended away at irregular angles from the elliptical main hull, which was all engine and fuel and supplies. At the end of one of the arms was the arboretum which until recently was where McLean had been passing the time. Its designed purpose was to serve as a natural air scrubber but he had misappropriated it otherwise. Obviously on the craft's inception the propaganda machine whirled into action and it was hailed as the greatest spacecraft ever created by humankind, but now it felt like a well-worn, well-loved dog toy; dirty and battered by sixteen months of radiation and debris, chewed up and spat out by the harsh climate of deep space.

McLean could taste the difference in the air as they arrived in the cold blue light of the Bridge: Sterile, lifeless, and all too serene for his liking. The light desaturated his skin and gave his face the deathly sheen of a cadaver. He thrived in the chaos of the organic, not this dry, rasping atmosphere and it was at that point that the Commander realised he must have been having some sort of moment when he agreed to do this mission. Still, here he was and he was making the best of it. McLean turned to the long range threat alarm which gazed tirelessly over the surrounding five million miles and delivered its verdict through its slow, measured, blinking screen. Five million miles - not a great deal to be worried about after all, but after a year and a half together McLean had learned Bartlett's foibles well.

He leaned in close to the the screen and its red glowing symbols warmed his face back into the land of the living. "Stephanie, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," he cast offhandedly, "Probably a rogue asteroid or something." Never much of a People Person, McLean hoped Bartlett understood his foibles too.

"Sure thing," Bartlett muttered, unconvinced. She lingered for a while, to see if anything would change. Nothing did, and she wandered off to her bunk. McLean remained, unmoving, in the Bridge as the Long Distance Relationship powered its way silently and swiftly towards the stars.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Neither man nor beast nor beast, our lost and mournful hero roamed.

Dwarfed by the towering volcanic peaks of the Aegean,
The sea-dwellers shooed it from their home -
I'm sorry they lied, we've enough problems of our own.

Pitiful amongst the bustling Metropolis,
It was derided and ignored in deference to a latte with extra foam -
There's a recession on, don't you know.

"Moo," said the cows, scornfully.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


The Alien slouched against the bar, limp cigarette dangling from its front row of teeth. A half drunk rum and cola was its silent partner.

"Come on, come on!" it rasped, "Make the shot already!"

The Predator cocked his head sideways, distracted and aggravated. This was a tense game - their closest yet - and the last thing he needed was this insufferable bounder putting him off with his backchat.

"My dear boy, do be quiet," he mumbled.

The Predator lined up his shot and contemplated. Tricky, yes. Impossible? No. He clicked on his targeting reticule and considered the far cushion; The correct angle would mean sinking the black and winning the frame. You don't let a snooker like this phase you after crossing half a galaxy in search of a worthy opponent. From the corner of his eye he could see his Alien foe lean forward slightly on his bar stool, small bizarre extra head poking out of his mouth in anticipation. What an odd fellow.

He drew back the cue to make the shot, attempting an air of calm to hide the knot of fear in his stomach. At this moment his exoskeleton - his constant companion through battle after battle - felt all too tight. He exhaled to steady himself. Suddenly, a blur of movement. Whipping round he saw the Alien sailing silently through the air, talons first followed by far too many teeth. There was no time to fire or even arm his shoulder cannon - the fiend was upon him! He wheeled the cue around and it connected solidly with his foe's temple. But this did little to slow it and The Predator, caught unawares, struggled to protect his face from the Alien's gaping, gnashing maw.

What kind of conduct was this for a gentleman?

Locked in combat, it was impossible to tell them apart - teeth, spikes and glistening carapaces became one in an orgy of snarling, whirling violence. Suddenly the Predator saw his opening - the cad's chest was exposed! In a moment he had plunged his snooker cue through the Alien's armoured hide and out of its back. A florid bouquet of wood, snooker chalk and blood blossomed across the table. The Alien crumpled to the floor.

Surely that was too easy?

The Predator picked up his battered Fedora and cocked it towards the bar. "Sorry about the mess old chap," he said with a wink. Behind him, acid blood began to mingle with the cigarette ash and dust and eat through the faded polish. just another scar in this lonely pool hall's undistinguished life.

From behind the bar, the bartender quietly cleaned an old pint glass, aghast.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


The first person we met properly was an unlikely taxi driver; no, the unhelpful American Airlines employee doesn't count. The driver was definitely a character, only four foot ten with small bright eyes and a missing front tooth. Wrapped in some kind of red taffeta shoulder-padded number, she wouldn't have looked out of place in a deep south church on a Sunday or a Cyndi Lauper music video. Add a battered tricorne, put her on the high seas behind the tiller of a rogue tea clipper and the look would be complete, if a bit unorthodox. This was all somewhat unexpected. Where was the jovial yet jaded taxi driver with the flat cap, foul mouth and Bronx lilt? Still, she would have to do. This peculiar hybrid looked up at us suspiciously, as if asking 'What do you want from me?'

A taxi ride, hopefully. Nothing relating to pillaging, thanks.

'Julia Street?' she mumbled, 'I don't think there are any hotels on Julia Street!' Her drawl and missing tooth made it hard to make out exactly what she was slurring, but the subsequent giggling cackle made it obvious.

Oh good.

After loading our bags she spent an inordinate amount of time thumbing helplessly at the mangled key fob in her hand. While waiting for her to decipher the complex device, I noticed the taxi door held an imposing sign : 'Only Driver May Operate Door'. Initially confusing, it soon became an ominous warning; What would happen if we, and not the driver, attempted to Operate Door? Could we injure ourselves? Could this even be a veiled threat? The matter was quickly resolved as our odd host, her brow furrowed in concentration and a dash of temporary confusion, put her tongue back inside her mouth and looked back up us. She jabbed a button on the fob, eyes ablaze with triumph.

The door slid open.

We climbed aboard and arranged ourselves around her bags of shopping, laundry and an impossibly large half-eaten slice of watermelon. It was itself sitting in a plastic bag, surrounded by pips and with a worn plastic fork sticking straight up out of the pulpy middle. This was her fruit fork, revered amongst all others, to take centre stage at all times; The mast to her noble vessel. The watermelon sat on the arm rest between the two front seats; August upon its throne, the best seat in the house. It was our silent, sentient guardian gazing tirelessly away beyond the horizon. When she swerved or braked hard, her hand shot out to steady the massive piece of fruit, as though she knew her driving had the potential to spill it or bruise it or otherwise cause it offence.

It is not comforting to be valued less than a watermelon.

The journey to the questionably existent hotel was largely uneventful, marred only by her seeming inability to keep a constant speed. Go. Stop. Go. Stopgo. Gogogostop. And so it continued. I pondered quite how to put on my seatbelt quietly and carefully enough so that she wouldn't realise it wasn't a direct result of her erratic driving. Slowly, carefully, I clicked the catch into place and turned to look out of the window, ashamed. When we finally arrived at our destination, our pilot veered sharply across the thankfully empty road and slid into a parking spot, watermelon always secure.

'You're staying here?' she cackled once more. Hobbling out of her seat and opening the boot - I noted with an odd degree of satisfaction that it was not also automatic - she glanced at us, inviting us to remove our bags. We rummaged through further plunder: shopping, clothes and now baby toys and pulled out our things. She gunned the engine and sailed off down the road, leaving us standing in that muggy street that smelled vaguely of sick, a wino asleep on a bench.

Enjoy your watermelon, weird pirate lady.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

You Slug

Hey buddy you gotta be more careful, that was too close.

I'm just walking down the road and then there you are in my face, crossing without looking.

I nearly stepped on you buddy. You're just a greasy tube with stalks for eyes. Yeah, a greasy tube, we all thought it but I said it. You can have that one for free.

You wonder how many of you guys die in a day? A week? A year? Too many to count, that's how many. You'd just be one more in a big long line of dead tubes. You gotta be more careful.

Nah I'm just kidding, best of luck buddy.

A Nice Easy Start

I'm often the first to rise in the morning. I don't know why, I just don't sleep in. I'm not super keen or anything. I just worry too much. I can't bear to "waste the day" by committing some somnolent atrocity, like sleeping in until 9.

But perhaps that would be no bad thing, I pronounce to no-one in particular.

Right now, everyone is dog tired from four long days at the crag. Even so, I'm up at half past seven, with the birds. Or is it the sheep in the field next to the villa? Their symphony of bells can only descend into cacophony when one is attempting to sleep through the dawn. I pull on a vest and fill up the kettle. In the silence of the morning it sounds like a freight train as it comes to the boil. Cup of rubbish Spanish coffee in hand, I flick through an old copy of Hello! or New! or whatever it is - I can't tell the difference. It's the same one I leafed through yesterday morning in the same manner, and I was similarly disinterested then. The previous tenants of this ropey old villa didn't see fit to take it with them, but rather punish me instead. I am a rabbit in the headlights of its neon typeface.

Idly I allow my brain to lay waste to itself.

Slowly, one by one, the others drag themselves out of bed. Half eight, nine, and the villa begins to come to life once more. The kettle gets up a head of steam again, and again. The frontiersman of the Old West were mistaken when they uprooted their lives in search of black gold; truly it boils here on the kitchen worktop. The muesli is out and swiftly spilled on the table. A half-hearted effort is made to clean it up, but it's ok because I know someone - me - will probably pick at it later. And then it's croissants and toast and bananas and hot chocolate. I watch as this plague of locusts devours every edible item within view, bent on the destruction of that which would stand between them and a full belly.

While waiting for the feeding frenzy to burn itself out, I take a shower. Predictably, the pressure is low and the temperature of the water is tepid, at best. Slowly however it warms to be the perfect midpoint between bearable and scalding. I stand head bowed, and let the rivulets of lukewarm liquid run through my hair, down my spine, over my eyes. It's beautiful really, and for a few moments I'm encased in this shimmering shield. Then the soap gets in my eyes and I hear a knock on the door.

There are other people waiting, you know.

The final preparation ritual begins. We lay out our gear in quiet awe; carabiners and quickdraws, cams, nuts and slings. There really is no need as it is all exactly where it was before, in exactly the same condition. But feeling the weight in your hand, knowing the tangibility; That is as good a reason as any. As swiftly and as silently as they began, the rites draw to a close. Gear is gear, it is all there and in good order, why romance it further? Later in the car, I will find myself thumbing at a carabiner just to listen to its brave snap and click, to hear tell of its heroics and strength, the chill metal a reminder of trust earned.

Belts and harnesses are stuffed unceremoniously into bags as the group becomes restless, almost as one. We pile into the tired hire car and the boot doesn't shut. We pile out again, attempt to rearrange the mountains of equipment and not get frustrated that we still haven't left. At last all the doors shut and our day can begin. Or begin to begin, at least. The air conditioning doesn't work, and I don't know why I expected it to be magically better overnight. On most days we teeter on the edge of being entombed in a furnace but today, thankfully, the air is cooler.

A half-hearted flock of clouds dawdle across the sky.

For some reason the radio stations play only 1980s hits and flamenco. Have the Spanish really only just discovered Soft Cell? More importantly, am I allowed to enjoy the Abba? Motorways become normal roads, and the normal road becomes a track. This plucky Ford Fiesta was never meant to go off road, I can tell you that from bitter experience. To say that it struggles would be an understatement, and even to suggest that it soars like some elegant bird of prey would be an outright lie.

But finally, after too many bone shaking minutes, the crag hoves into view and it begins to rain. Perfect timing Spain, thank you. Optimistically we unpack our gear and set about finding a good first pitch to begin the day. Perhaps there is one which is a bit steep and will remain dry. Initial enthusiasm wanes swiftly as we fail to find a suitable candidate. The drizzle matures and the engorged clouds continue to unleash their payload with aplomb, the epitome of timely restraint and release.

We return to the car without a word, turn on the flamenco and eat more croissants.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Woodcutter

He wakes before dawn. As the birds begin to stir and yawn their pre-dawn song, he makes a cup of coffee. Strong, black. Maybe fresh if he's feeling generous to himself, but more often than not he'll reheat some left over from the day before. As the sun steadily makes itself known over the distant treeline, he drags his aching body to the bathroom. At least he should shave, he thinks. Make himself look respectable. But for who? The trees? The stained porcelain of the basin stairs back at him as he splashes cold water on his weatherworn face. So many years, so many lines. But they are not laughter lines, they are lines carved into his features through toil and slog, lines summoned into existence by two decades of existing over living.

The rusty razor rasps across his skin, but its dullness does not awaken his senses any more than the coffee. Routine.

Returning to his bedroom, the solitary sunbeam casts its weak ray across his messy bed. An old quilt, once made for a child and used far beyond its years lies strewn across the stained sheets. Nothing sinister mind, but the stains of time, of sweat in the too hot summer nights, faded through one hundred too many washes.

Dust motes navigate through the sunbeam. Conjured into existence by the dawn and its piercing light, they have but a few seconds' life before they leave the shaft of light and perish in the dimness beyond.

His jeans, too, are faded. The marks of use and love, of trees, beer and of spaghetti sauce. This pair of jeans are his near constant companion.

"Why throw them away?", he always says, "They've never done me wrong."

He pulls on his overcoat and his splinter infested boots, and steps out into the cool morning air. The sun is visible now, its orange glow struggling to warm the air. The stillness is broken by the sound of an approaching truck; as inevitable as the dawn itself his old buddy arrives to take him the 14 miles up the track to where the sentencing is to be carried out.

"Mornin'" he mumbles, his breath fresh against the cold.

"Mornin'" comes the reply, barely audible above the rattling complaints of the old truck. Men can bond over these things, these trivialities and nonsenses that some overlook. It may well be a simple ritual but a ritual it is, the transference from dark to light, from solitude to fraternity. The journey passes as usual, in silence. At one point a squirrel darts in front of the vehicle, itself too asleep, it would seem, to have common sense.

As usual, they arrive on time, and the day begins. Gloves are donned, chainsaws are revved and visors are lowered. This forest has committed no crime, done no wrong, but its mere existence has become its own assurance of destruction.

The logging goes well that day. No-one is hurt. No machines break down, and no cables snap. No equipment is lost. Trees get cut down, and loaded onto lorries; their full purpose on this world is yet to be realised. The woodcutter doesn't care where they end up, what they are used for. The time has long since passed when he felt inquisitive as to their destination. Trees are trees, he was told. What happens to them is not your concern.

After work, the group of tired men retire to The Happy Logger, as usual. What conversation can be had when all experiences are already shared?

"Hey, did you see Donny nearly eat it under the choker?"

"Reminds me of the time I got hit in the head with an axe."

Old Manny, everything reminds him of the time he got hit in the head with an axe. It is as though that very event knocked every other memory out of him. Still, the younger loggers never tire of the tales of his heroics, imbuing them with the potential to do the same, to rise up as more than mere mortals. These incidental events become defining moments in lives, and these lives suddenly revolve around fleeting moments of the past.

The joviality is false and shortlived - soon it is time for everyone to return home, wherever that may be. One by one, the men slope off to continue their existence privately and savour those brief moments of respite when a man is greater than the sum of his days. He too soon finds it time to leave and sinks the last few drops of his increasingly lukewarm beer. His feet struggle to find the floor from his vantage point on the stool, but find it they do and with a creak he is on his way toward the door and the once again cool air.

He returns to his apartment after dark and fumbles the key in the rusty lock. Living itself became mechanical long ago, the once bright promise of what the day might bring blunted by its repeated inability to deliver. He flicks the radio on and hears the same songs, the same playlist. Why does nothing ever change?

Kicking off his boots, he sinks into his aged couch. It embraces him as though a loved one, warming him and easing his pains. He gazes into his large palms, and revisits each scar, each callous which can never fade. His left index finger is nothing more than a stump, dragged into the whirling, snarling machinery all those years ago. The dirt under his remaining fingernails seems to never wash out, however hard he tries. He can never leave that forest behind, it stays with him, clings to him, haunts him. Looking at his hands now is not only a reminder of the day that has passed, but of the identical day that will follow.

The bed is calling but the couch is too inviting, too hospitable.