Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mr Butler and Mr Dry

David Butler stood nervously in the glass foyer and waited. Outside, snow was falling in darkness. Automatic doors opened and closed behind him as people came and went. Michael Buble sang Christmas songs over the tannoy inside, where the glare of the supermarket lights formed a blinding, blurry mist. He patted his pockets absent-mindedly but his glasses weren't there.

David was nervous. Managing the store had been his life's work. His grandfather had founded Butler's, but in the past year it had been bought, and today he was meeting a representative from the new owners. Tomorrow the shop was officially changing hands.

An overweight man in a suit strode into the foyer, brushing the snow off his shoulders. "David? David Butler?" it said.

"Mr Dry, is it?" asked David, shaking a sweaty hand. He wished he had his glasses. The man was just an unfocused blob.

"Call me Crispin, please," said Mr Dry. "Shall we?"

David followed him inside, past the Christmas tree on which hundreds of fairy lights glowed in unfocused circles.

Mr Dry picked up a bag of tangerines and examined them critically. He groped each one like a doctor testing for lumps. "What do you notice about these tangerines?" he asked.

David took them and brought them close to his face. "They all look fine to me..."

"That, David, is the problem," replied Mr Dry. "You buy the tangerines by the crate, and bag them up in store, yes? Well from now on, we're going to put one of the fruits that are past their best - a bit watery and squashy - into every bag we sell."

David was taken aback. "But sir, we usually just throw them away!"

"It'll save us money, David. It's good business."

"Surely people will notice, sir! A bad tangerine in every bag? They're bound to pick up on that!"

"You'd be surprised," said the fat, blurry shape. "You'd be surprised. One week the husband will get the bad one, next week the wife, next week little Johnny. They won't pick up any pattern. And even if they do, they don't do anything about it. It's just business. Now, what have we got here?"

"Dry roasted peanuts, sir."

Mr Dry strode up to the nearest till and poured them out in the bagging area. "What's missing from this picture?" he asked.

David scooped up a handful of peanuts and peered at them.

"No dust, David. Where's the peanut dust?"

"The waste produced by the dry roasting process? We throw it away!"

"From now on, we're going to remove a couple of peanuts from every packet and replace them with dust. It'll save money. There's money in waste products, you know. It's good business."

David was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

"And I'll tell you what," Mr Dry continued, "after a while, people will expect the peanut dust. They'll feel ripped off if they get a bag without it. Get someone to clean these peanuts up, will you?" 

David quickly cleaned the peanuts up himself and scurried after Mr Dry, who had picked up a sack of potatoes. 

"Now what about these? Can you see anything wrong with these potatoes, David?"

"No, sir! They are of the highest quality! Very popular with the customers!"

Mr Dry pointed to the little printed label that said where the potatoes were from. It said 'ROMANIA."

"Romania is a problem, sir?"

"No, no, of course not," he replied, "cheap as chips, I'm all for it. But from now on, we don't tell people things come from there. We say 'grown in the EU'. That way they could have been grown in Italy or France. More romantic. And we can bump the price up a bit. Everyone knows a possibly-grown-in-France potato is worth more than definitely-grown-in-Romania potato."

David's head was spinning. "Sir, is this honest?"

"There is only success or failure, David. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"Not at all."

"Tell me David, when did you last rearrange the store?"

"We never do that really, sir," David replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "People know where to find things. It works great, just the way it is."

"Right, well from now on, we're going to be moving everything around. One month we'll move all the eggs. Then another month we'll move the baby products. Then the sauces. Then something else again after that."

"Sir, we have always tried to be considerate towards both our employees and our customers. This sounds... for lack of a better word, disrespectful."

"It's good business, David. Rearranging will force people to search all over, exposing them to all the products and displays they might miss out on in their usual shopping routine."

"Sir, there will be complaints if we keep arbitrarily rearranging the store."

"Complaints are good, David! If a customer cares enough to complain, that shows they are beginning to feel a sense of ownership in the business. They are beginning to feel it is their shop."

"People already feel that, sir!"

"And besides, complaints won't cause any real trouble - the customer service team can simply blame Head Office. Everyone knows that wherever you work, Head Office can neither be reached nor reasoned with. Easy to blame, and impossible to actually get hold of. Damn good system, if you ask me."

"In what possible sense is that a good system, sir?"

"In the sense that it's good business."

"I thought you might say that."

Mr Dry wandered over to the hair care products and stared at the shelves. "Now," he said, "tell me about the people of this town. Are they wealthy?"

"Not wealthy, no," replied David, "but not poor either... middle class, I suppose. Families who want the best for their kids."

"You see these products? You've got the very cheapest shampoo, then some stuff priced in the middle, and then the expensive name brands. We need to change this."

"I - I'm sorry?"

"We'll discontinue the stuff in the middle. Make 'em choose between either the bog-standard cheap rubbish or the name brands. Just you watch - they'll go for the name brands every time - these middle class families - they'll feel like choosing the cheapest stuff is letting their kids down. So only leave 'em one other option. The most expensive one."

"Sir, that is immoral!"

"Not at all, not at all! We're doing them a favour, can't you see? We're giving them pride. They'll realise they can afford the best! Imagine what that does for your self-respect, David!"

David sagged. "Mr Dry, if you don't mind, I have left my glasses in my office, and must go and find them." And without waiting for a reply, he left the shop floor and fled upstairs. 

He found his spectacles in his office amongst the stock reports. As he slipped them on, the world came back into focus. He had known his last day at the store was coming, but he hadn't realised until now that it had already come. He watched Mr Dry wandering the aisles on the CCTV monitors. Tomorrow it would all change. It was already changing.

He made his way back downstairs and approached the meat counter. "Mr Rodgers. Come with me, if you would be so kind."

Mr Rodgers laid down his meat cleaver and followed Mr Butler into the dairy aisle, where Mr Dry was examining a bottle of milk.

"Mr Rodgers, this is Mr Dry." Mr Dry looked up. "He came in a green BMW which is currently parked outside in the disabled space. I'd like you to let his tyres down, please."

Mr Rodgers looked confused.

"Is this a joke?" asked Mr Dry, one eyebrow raised.

David was not smiling. "We have pressurised air available in the garage forecourt, sir - a pound a go. Good business. And Mr Rodgers, I seem to remember a length of spare tubing out in the warehouse? Please take it and siphon off his fuel."

"What do you think you're playing at, Butler?" said Mr Dry, a warning in his voice.

"We also have petrol available in the forecourt, sir. Shall I call Eileen the cashier and ask her to put up the price?"

"Put up the price? What for, man!"

"For when you get there with an empty tank, sir. Remember, there is only success or failure, Mr Dry. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"You are asking to be fired, Mr Butler," said Mr Dry, but David was already walking away.

He stood in the foyer for a moment, the doors opening and closing behind him, and took a deep breath. Apparently, the principles of good business only worked in one direction. When they were turned around, they became gross misconduct. With a sigh, and without saying goodbye to anyone, he walked out into the falling snow, got into his car, and drove away into the night.

Mr Rodgers the butcher didn't know what was going on, or why the new boss was glaring at him. But it was obvious that old Mr Butler hadn't liked him very much, and old Mr Butler liked everybody. As he made his way back to the meat counter, he mused on the notion that everybody liked Mr Butler too. Respectful, that's what he was. Made things easy for the staff, and they made things easy for him.

"New boss is here, Doreen," Mr Rodgers said, as he picked up his cleaver again. "Don't like the look of him. Only been here five minutes and already fallen out with the old man."

Doreen listened greedily to the whole story, and then scurried off to the alcohol aisle to gossip to Shannon, who, Mr Rodgers knew, would invariably tell everyone else in the store. He paused in thought for a few moments, and then grinned as his cleaver fell on the meat. Mr Butler knew how to make life easy for those who worked in the store. Apparently, he also knew how to make it hard.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Politician's Dinner

"Gary, it's lovely to see you, thanks for agreeing to meet up again."

"May I offer a particularly warm welcome to you, Miss Bingham. The third date is always the most... invigorating, don't you think? Please, have some wine."

"I must make a confession, Gary. I'm not here only for the date tonight. I was wondering; before we order any food, can I ask you a few questions? It's about my sister."

"You are, of course, referring to the honourable Mrs Dresden?"

"Yes - or Helen, as most people call her. She seems to have gone missing."

"I'm sure all of our hearts go out to all her friends and family during this difficult time."

"She's been gone for nearly a week now, Gary. Mum's been beside herself. You know how it is - Helen's a grown-up - she can get up and go if she chooses. But her mobile has been switched off, she hasn't been to work... And it's been nearly a week. We're going to speak to the police tomorrow. Is there anything you want to tell me?"

"Only that this is a matter for the relevant authorities."

"You two seemed to really hit it off."

"All I can say to the honourable lady is that I am happy to look at the issue she raises in due course."

"Because - the reason I ask - I was shopping on Saturday, Gary, in the town centre-"

"Which has undergone significant redevelopment, as per our manifesto pledge-"

"-and that was the last time Helen was seen. In a black Jaguar. She's been missing since Saturday."

"-delivering the best deal for working people, and I might add, the best deal for Britain."

"Gary, are you listening to me?"

"Yes, I've been perfectly clear about that, and I resent any implication otherwise."

"Good. Because the last person to see her was me, Gary. Did you know that? Oh, yes, go on then, I will have another glass - I only caught a glimpse, and the windows were tinted, but I'm sure it was her I saw. In the passenger side of your car. The black Jaguar. Which you happened to be driving at the time."

"My honourable friend raises an important issue. I am looking seriously at this and will make sure I have an appropriate strategic response in good time."

"Gary, was my sister the woman in your car on the day she disappeared?"

"Now, look - I would like to think I have been entirely transparent in all my dealings with you, Miss Bingham. My commitment in relation to honesty, openness and accountability is completely clear."

"Gary, I asked you a question. Oh, go on then, just one more - but that's all - I'm driving."

"Now, look - let me be clear about this - I do not sanction kidnapping, abduction or murder, and that will continue to be my position. I've been perfectly clear. I will institute an urgent review into all matters pertaining to the case referred to me by my friend the Right Honourable Member Sat on the Chair on the Other Side of the Table. I've been perfectly clear, and, if I may refer the honourable lady to my previous statement to the house on this issue, I will continue to be perfectly clear."

"Gary, were you in that car with my sister? Answer me!"

"I say to the lady opposite, I've already addressed her concerns, and wonder why the honourable lady wants to hear it again? I don't propose to give a running commentary on every ongoing development, thank you very much. Your sister was one of the many people shopping on Saturday, and I think it's absolutely right that we recognise the contribution these fine men and women make to the prosperity and growth of modern Britain."

"Gary... I miss her. I miss my sister. Was she in your car? I'm so sure it was her I saw!"

"Can I join my honourable friend in her sentiments so well expressed, and assure her that she speaks on behalf of both sides of the house in this matter. And can I congratulate her on a fine choice of wine for the evening?

"You like it? Gosh I have drunk a lot of it already, haven't I? What was I saying? Go on then, one last glass. Are you ordering another bottle?"

"I'll tell you what I am doing - lowering taxes, providing greater opportunity for working people, driving down unemployment - that's what I'm doing."

"Yes, that's very nice Gary, I know you're an MP, but what about the wine? Are you ordering that?"

"I'll tell you I am doing - providing more school places! Encouraging higher voter turnout! Making Britain work for working people!"

"I'll just order it then... Honestly, for a date, this is a lot of hard work."

"I can confirm that we are putting forward to the committee a motion for additional funding for any further meetings that may come up in future."

"Somewhere more upmarket than this place, I hope. Seriously, you could afford to take me to the Ritz on your salary."

"Despite the mess I inherited, I am proud to report a robust economic sector, in which there are many new opportunities for working people."

"You mean the Ritz isn't out of the question? Ooh, that would be nice... I've never been before..."

"I am hopeful that talks will be able to continue."

"Oh that is nice, Gary! What were we talking about? I'm lost... Go on, then, fill her up..."

"I have made a robust response to all the issues raised by the honourable lady, and the working men and women of Britain can rest assured that this government will pursue the very best deal possible for everyone concerned."

"Have you? Oh, that's a relief. I'm glad. Oh, my head hurts. I'm not sure I'm hungry any more, although for the life of me I can't imagine why. I was ravenous when I arrived."

"My honourable friend raises a valid point."

"Shall we just head out now? I suppose we could save a little money if we skip dinner."

"Hear, hear!"

"Oh alright then, you cheeky thing! Back to your place, maybe? You'll have to drive though, I'm feeling a little tipsy. Did you come in your car? Oh good, then I'll wait out front for you. What kind of car do you drive again?"

"A black Jaguar. With tinted windows."

"OK, I'll keep an eye out for it, ladykiller!"

"I look forward to it with great anticipation. Another glass?"

"Go on, then, if I must..."


(I wrote this in response to a challenge; to write a short story using only dialogue - which explains why there is no 'he said', 'she said', or any descriptive writing at all. 
I've always loved and hated the way politicians talk without actually saying anything or committing themselves. I took many of the phrases that Gary uses verbatim from Theresa May at Prime Minister's Questions, Wednesday 25th Jan 2017.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Blank and the Glorious One

A neutral soul wandered alone in the desert. His name was Blank. But that was nothing unusual. Every neutral soul's name was Blank.

Miles and miles of flat, featureless white sand spread to every horizon. In the smoky distance, a sheer mountain range marked the boundary of the known world. Solid white cloud cover rolled permanently overhead.

Blank had left The-Place-Of-Many-Souls and begun the long walk. It happened, from time to time - a neutral soul would, out of nothing more than vague curiosity, look upwards. And if it looked up at the right moment, it might catch sight of a Glorious One, streaking through the skies above; a distant figure of gold and white flame.

The memory burned in Blank's mind. He had heard that in the Place-Where-Souls-Are-Lost there was something called the House. He did not know what the House was. But in the House there was a way out; a way, perhaps, to catch a second glimpse of a Glorious One.

Blank walked and walked. In the distance, a building appeared, perfectly square. It grew larger until it was taller than anything he had ever seen before - at least as tall as two neutral souls standing end to end. Blank cowered under the towering edifice, wondering if perhaps he had made a mistake. Until now, he had never felt intimidation. If this was the sort of thing that the house contained, perhaps he would be better off without it.... yet the memory of the Glorious One still tugged at his mind and drove him on.

Blank knocked at the door. It was opened by someone new; not a neutral soul.

"Hello, Blank," said the other soul, "I'm Cynthia, the secretary. Come on in."

"What is secretary?" asked Blank, as he stepped inside nervously.

"Um... I suppose it means I'm the only one who really knows what's going on round here," she said, yawning widely and sipping something.

Blank looked blank. He was very good at it. "What are you holding?"

"Black coffee - it's a drink. You've never eaten or drunk before, though, so you won't know what that is..."

"What are the things over your eyes?"

"Glasses, Blank," replied Cynthia. "Please, sit down."

Blank sat down cross-legged opposite Cynthia. "What is glasses?"

"My eyes aren't very good," she replied patiently. "They help me read the memos."

Blank was feeling increasingly lost. "What is memos?"

"Blank, you are being a little annoying."

"What is annoying?"

Cynthia sighed. She knew it wasn't his fault. He simply didn't know. None of them did. She'd been just the same once, she was sure. She sipped at the coffee. "Let me save you some time," she said.

"What is-"

"You saw something that made you feel different, didn't you?"

Blank paused, and then nodded.

"What was it?" asked Cynthia.

"A Glorious One. In the sky."

"How did you feel?"

Blank said nothing for a few moments. "Golden?"

"Good word! And now you want to see another one, yeah?"

"Yes," he nodded.

"Well, here's the secret of the house - you can't see one of them again just because you want to. But, if you want to live, one day you might even become one of them."

"What is live?"

"Come with me."

Cynthia led him into a different part of the house, slurping her drink. There was a hole in the ground filled with something transparent and wobbly.

"What is that?" asked Blank, pointing.

"A pool of water," she replied. "If you get into it, you'll live. It will be like nothing you have ever experienced."

Blank stared at the water. There was no wind inside the house, but it was disturbed, ripples dancing on the surface.

"Nothing I say can prepare you for it," continued Cynthia. "And I haven't got the words - or the time - to explain it properly."

"But I may see the Glorious Ones again?"

"Yep," she nodded. "Eventually. Woah, woah, hold on!" she grabbed him as he attempted to enter the pool. "There's some formalities to go through!"

"What is-"

"There's a disclaimer! And a contract."

"What is-"

"Just follow me, will you?"

Blank followed her into a third room, in which there was a table and two chairs. Cynthia sat on one of the chairs, and gestured towards the other one. Blank sat too. Cynthia pulled out something crinkly and white.

"Paper," she said, before he could ask. "Now I could read this to you, but it wouldn't make any sense, and I'd be here til kingdom come trying to explain all the words, so why don't I just paraphrase things a little?"

Blank stared.

"Blank, you are a neutral soul," said Cynthia.

Blank nodded.

"You were put here where there isn't any pain nor pleasure, basically, because you haven't done anything to deserve either one - yet. You didn't choose to exist, did you? And, of course, you can stop existing at any time you want. No-one here is forced to exist against their will."

Blank nodded again. Occasionally a Blank who had existed for a very long time would choose not to exist any more. It was not a good or bad thing. It was just a thing that happened.

"Because life is... well, different, if you want it, you have to choose it. With your own free will. It wouldn't be fair otherwise."

"Life is in the pool?"

"Yes. But if you want it, you need to know that you're going to suffer. There's no question at all - everyone does."

"What is suffer?"

"Remember what you felt when you saw the House up close for the first time, Blank?"

Blank nodded.

"I suppose it's a bit like that... but much, much worse."

Blank now felt foreboding for the first time. The feeling was equally as unwelcome.

"You'll also feel pain," she continued. "which is... oh, how can I explain it... It's like that bad feeling being in your body as well as your mind... Something like that."

Blank peered at one of his hands.

"But hey, you might also get to experience some joy, happiness, love and laughter, too. Those things are pretty good."

"What are they?"

"They're like the opposite. I dunno... probably like how you felt when you saw the Glorious One in the sky, but much stronger."

Blank was amazed. "Joy, happiness - these are good feelings?"

"Yes."

"Pain is a bad feeling felt in the body, yes? Are there good feelings felt in the body?"

"Yeah, all sorts," grinned Cynthia. "There's food and drink, which are biggies," she said, raising her mug of black coffee, "hugs and sleep, also very popular. And there's other ones too - but you won't find out about them for a while."

Blank's mouth was hanging open. How was all of this possible?

"But here's the thing," she said. "There's no guarantee of good feelings. Going into the pool is a gamble. Your life might be wonderful. It could be awful. Most lives are an uneven mix of both."

"But I might see another Glorious One?"

"Yes, I told you, you could become one of them. Depending on what you do down there."

"If I do well, I will become a Glorious One?"

"Yes."

"And if I do not do well?"

"You will become... something else," she said. "Something terrible."

Blank was suddenly afraid for the first time. "Is this one of the bad feelings?"

"Just a taste, yes."

"But I will remember your warning," said Blank, carefully, "and take care to live according to the good feelings."

"Ah. Well, that's the other condition," said Cynthia. "The big one. If you go in, you won't remember before you were born. You won't remember me or our conversation. Even if you live, die, and come back as a Glorious One, you still won't recall your time here. It's part of the contract."

"I will remember none of my brethren?"

Cynthia snorted. "What, good old Blank, Blank, Blank and Blank? Not to mention Blank - who could forget him, always the life and soul of the party? No, you won't remember any of them. You won't remember this place and you won't remember signing the contract, either."

"Why must it be this way?"

"How else could you get a chance to become a Glorious One? It has to be fair - if you want it you have to earn it. And how could you be truly tested if you knew you were being watched? The whole school is on best behaviour if they know the inspectors are in. But it's in the normal day to day that you see what's really going on."

"What is-"

"Nevermind, nevermind," she said, waving an arm irritably and spilling a little coffee. "One other thing," she added, "when the bad things happen in life, if they get bad enough, you'll think life itself is unfair. You'll think someone 'up there' is treating you badly, putting you through something you never asked for."

"But I am asking for it!"

"You won't remember, remember? It is part of the contract. You are free to sign, you are free to refuse. The choice is entirely and completely yours. And when you finish your life, you will be shown this contract again, just in case you feel you have been treated unfairly by anyone 'up here' once it's all over."

Blank said nothing for a while. "What must I do?"

"You want to live, then?"

"Yes."

"Tell me why."

"It would be better to feel the good feelings, even a little, than to never feel them at all. To live seems better than not to live."

"And the bad feelings? What about them?"

"If I must risk them that I might feel the good, I will risk them."

"You realise you're talking about stuff you don't understand? Some people who live experience so much bad that wish they were never born at all."

"But I wish to become a Glorious One," he replied, thoughtfully. "If the bad feelings come more often than the good ones, surely that will not disqualify me from becoming a Glorious One?"

"Not at all."

"Then perhaps, even if life is difficult, it will be worth living, nonetheless."

Cynthia smiled. "Very well. You understand, then. Sign here, please. Just put your hand on the paper."

Blank did so, and removed it. An outline remained.

"Now, come this way."

She led him to the pool. "Alright, in you go," she said with a smile. "Best of luck!"

"What is luck?"

"Oh, just get on with it, will you?"

Blank shrugged, stepped into the pool, and vanished.

Cynthia stood watching for a few moments, polished her glasses on her cardigan and then wandered back out into the reception area. She lifted the receiver of a rotary-dial phone and said, "One more on the way, Henry."

Unintelligible noises on the other end.

"Sorry? Oh, no, he seemed nice enough. They're all the same down here, really."

The voice on the other end gabbled.

"Oh, yes please, black, five sugars. Great! See you soon."

She replaced the receiver and waited. Overhead, a Glorious One seared a golden path across the sky.


(Written 22/01/17. I have often wondered before what answer could be given to those who feel that their lives were too full of suffering to have been worth living, if one day they died and had a face-to-face with a creator. The 'I wish I had never been born' argument so often hinges on the assumption that we were all thrust into life without our consent, and with no foreknowledge of what we were letting ourselves in for. But what if that wasn't the case? What if we were all fully informed, and chose to take the plunge anyway? And, after all, who's to say that we weren't...)


Monday, January 16, 2017

The Man Who Wanted To Start Again

God sat down at my table. Short, messy grey hair, an unshaven face and a ring through one ear. "You wanted to talk to me," he said. It was a statement, not a question.

I nodded, frowning a little. He looked disinterested, like he wasn't really paying attention.

"You want the chance to start again," he said. "To have your life over from the beginning, yes?"

"Not quite the beginning," I replied. "Maybe from the start of school. Something like five years old."

"But that's not all you want, is it?" said God. "Try again. Be more specific."

"Well, I want to start my life over," I replied, "but I want to remember this one. I want a second shot, but with the knowledge I have now."

"Very well," said God, nodding vaguely and fiddling with a loose thread on his jeans. "Tell me why."

"You know why," I replied.

"Please. Tell me anyway."

I sighed and gazed into nothing. "Lauren Stirling. Do you remember her? She was always out of my league. She ended up on the T.V. you know. An actress."

God nodded.

"But if I'd known what I was doing - if I'd got in there early, she could've been my wife."

God shrugged. "Yes, you may be right."

"I could have befriended her early on, played all my cards right, and then gone out with her in high school. I'm sure of it."

God scratched his arm and watched me thoughtfully.

"We could have been one of those couples who dated right through their teenage years and spent their adult lives happily married. That could have been me. I just never knew how."

God nodded again.

I paused for thought. "And I let people push me around way too much as a kid. I wish I'd known how to stand up for myself earlier. I could've avoided a lot of heartache. There's too much bullying in schools, you know."

"I do," replied God. "Carry on."

"And look at all those opportunities I missed as a teenager! I was just too naive or immature to recognise what was right in front of me. If I'd really known about life back then, I could have been famous by now!"

God stared at the wall behind me with a glazed expression.

"I could have spent all my formative years focused on success. I could have been rich, I could have been famous, I could have been married to the most beautiful woman I've ever met. If I had another shot, I could make such a success of my life!"

"I don't disagree," said God, placing both hands palms-down on the table.

"You don't?"

"Nope."

"Then you know how I feel?"

"Entirely."

Relief flooded over me. If God knew how I felt, how could he possibly refuse my request? How could anyone? The feelings were so strong... Surely that was all he would need. It was certainly all I needed. "Then what do you say?" I asked.

"You have my permission."

I paused. This seemed too easy. But perhaps it was easy. Perhaps all you had to do sometimes was ask. "You're saying I can actually do this?"

"You can indeed." He didn't seem to be kidding.

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. But, before I drop you back into your five-year-old body, I need to ask you a few things."

I nodded, my heart thumping with excitement. I had expected him to say no.

"If I am going to do this for you, the same offer has to apply to everyone else as well. I mean, I have to be fair. I am God, after all. Unless, of course, you know of anything that makes you special - that means you are entitled to this opportunity but no-one else is."

I hesitated for a moment. Everyone else would get a second chance too. This had never occurred to me. In my fantasy I had always been the only one. The rest of humanity would still be on their first time, giving me a huge, secret advantage. I wondered what this revealed about me.

"Well?" said God. "Why should you be the only one who gets a second shot? Is there anything that makes you more entitled than the rest?"

I knew the answer before I spoke. I had lived an average life thus far. Not terrible, not incredible, just average. "Not that I'm aware of..." I said, carefully.

"Well then, that's settled," said God, seeming to pay attention now for the first time. "Everyone who wants a second shot at life will be offered one at age - how old did you say you were again?"

"Thirty-nine."

"Thirty-nine," nodded God. He seemed to be enjoying himself a little now. "They will be returned to their five-year-old bodies, but with their older minds, able to take full advantage of the opportunities life may have denied them the first time round. Do you agree?"

I was beginning to have doubts. "You're offering it to everyone? I bet there'll be a lot of takers..."

"I expect there would be high response rate, yes."

"Will every other five-year old be a second-timer?"

"Not every one. But the probably the majority of them."

"But... what if some other second-timer ended up getting Lauren Stirling?"

"I don't know. What if some other second-timer got her?"

"But that's not fair!"

"Why isn't it fair?" God was fully engaged now. "Explain it to me."

"You already know!"

"This time I don't. I really don't."

I envisioned being back at my old school as a child, surrounded by little children who were actually ambitious, scheming little adults in disguise. The scenario suddenly seemed extremely unappealing. I then wondered why I labelled every other second-timer a devious git with myself as the only exception. I looked back at God, and he was grinning at me. "Stop reading my thoughts!" I exclaimed.

"I can't help it," he replied. "Do you wish to return to your early life now? I am ready if you are."

"Hang on, hang on, I'm not sure. What would a world look like where anyone who wanted to start over could do so?"

"Well, it'd be a hell of a lot more competitive, that's for sure," said God, thoughtfully.

"From how early on?"

"Right from the word go."

"Oh."

"And if you got Lauren Stirling and she looked back and felt like she could have done better, she would be able to have a second go as well."

"Really? I never thought of that."

"Indeed. And as for fame and fortune, I suspect you will find it even harder on your second try, because so many of the second-timers will also be pursuing the same thing."

"The competition will be fiercer than it already is?"

"Much fiercer. And will start much earlier too."

I slumped back in my chair, all the excitement gone. A world populated by cynical, power-hungry five-year-olds using every trick in the book to climb to the top of the pile stretched out in-front of me. Innocence would vanish. So would all the happy discoveries and explorations of childhood. Everyone would already know it all already. And be fighting over it.

I didn't want to tell God how much the new world I was about to create repelled me. And then I remembered that he knew. He couldn't help knowing. "You're reading my thoughts again aren't you," I muttered.

"Can't help it. Stop thinking if you don't like it."

"Perhaps things are OK as they are," I said, after a few moments.

"Just OK?"

"Alright, perhaps things are best left the way they are."

"Well said. Perhaps I agree. Is there anything else I can do for you?" God asked, grinning like an idiot again.

"I'll let you know if I think of anything."

"I'll be right here."

"Actually, I could go for a cup of tea."

"Great! Not a problem. I'll go get one for you," he said, getting to his feet.

"Hang on a minute, hang on", I said, raising both hands. "Maybe I'll get it myself."

"OK," God replied, sitting back down and smiling.

"OK."

(Written on my lunch break 12/01/17 after reflecting on what it would be like to have my life over again - and how it probably would be a really, really bad idea. And, just a mini-disclaimer - it's not written about me - I am not the person speaking in this story, and I've never actually met anyone called Lauren Stirling, nor is anyone I grew up with a TV star! Just for the record...)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Guy of the Universe

Guy hovered and peered at one of the walls of the universe. It bore repeating patterns and mysterious sigils that stretched as high as the eye could see, and all the way down to the rolling, uneven terrain in the plummeting depths below. It was helpful to focus on the wall of the universe, because it took his mind momentarily off the Great Temptation.

In the high heavens there hung a blinding star, an attraction that pulled at him constantly, tugging at his heart, always in the back of his mind. The star was, at times, irresistible. Sometimes Guy would lose control - his willpower would crumble, and he would hurtle towards the heart of it, drawn by the glory of the light, caring nothing for the heat and pain that would inevitably come. The star would burn and blind him, but he had no choice; it would always be his master, like gravity to a falling stone.

Gravity did not have the mastery over Guy, however; Guy could fly. He could move with a speed that few others could match, darting through the air like a sparkler's trail. He had to be fast simply to survive, because the Hunters often broke into his universe, and the Hunters were relentless. They were inexpressibly big - vast lumbering monstrosities so huge that you could never get far enough away to see one of them in their entirety. And they did not like Guy. They were Masters of the Universe - they claimed it, it was theirs, and no others were welcome. Guy had had many narrow escapes.

Mercifully, the Hunters were not very attentive, and sometimes they didn't notice him at all. If he was managing to resist the Great Temptation; hiding in a well shadowed area of the universe where its light could not reach; sometimes the Hunters would leave him alone, conversing with one another in deep, groaning voices. A word in the Hunter language would drone and rumble for hours at a time. Who knew how they could possibly have the patience for such a language. But, that was the Hunters - inscrutable. They came, and they went, and if they ever saw Guy, they tried to kill him. And the weapons they used! Titanic clubs like whole continents ripped up and rolled into a truncheon that came at you like a falling skyscraper.

Yet, for all their mindless, inexplicable malice, the Hunters were incredibly slow. Guy had never failed to evade their clumsy assaults, darting out from under their clubs and soaring away as fast as he could.

Today Guy was weary. A hunter had done something to the star - the Great Temptation had almost doubled in brightness, and Guy did not know how much longer he could resist. He remembered watching it happen; a Hunter had pulled the heart out of the star, plunging the universe into gloom. The Hunter then re-lit the star-fires with a new heart, and the universe flamed with a new, searing dawn. All day the blinding fire had gnawed at his mind, and he was losing concentration, drunk on light.

The height was getting to him too. He needed to get to lower ground. Dizzily, he gazed down over the universe. Nothing was moving. There was no sound either. Perhaps the Hunters were not around. Flying briefly over the mountainous terrain, he alighted on the crest of a mountainous cliff which rose from the abyss, and rested for a moment, shutting his eyes. And thus, he did not see the eyes of the Hunter like planets, opening slowly, many miles above. He had landed on its knee. And this Hunter was faster than usual. It brought its hands together in a clap designed to smash Guy into paste. But Guy felt the winds change, and though his head was full of fireworks, he took to the skies just in time to avoid being crushed in a galactic vice.

The sonic boom of sound and rush of wind threw him into a spin. He tumbled through the air and landed off-balance and staggering on an endless wooden platform. He barely had time to gasp a last prayer as the black outline of the falling Hunter-club blocked out the light of the Great Temptation overhead. Guy knew it was all over, at long last.

WHAM.

"Bloody fly. Been after that one for ages," muttered John, unrolling The Times and throwing it back onto the table.

(Written on my lunch break 10/01/17 in Richmond N Yks, after a random moment's inspiration following trying (and failing) to kill a fly by clapping. I wonder what that great escape was like from the fly's perspective...)
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