The Global Odd Sock Enigma

The bony man edged forward purposefully in his seat. During the train’s snaking journey from Rugby to Coventry, she had caught his eye several times more than she felt comfortable with. True, there wasn’t much to gawp at in the drech gloaming outside the rattling carriages, sluiced by unrelenting sheets of January rain. But he seemed inordinately interested in her. Why couldn’t he just avert his gaze, hang suspended in the tedious stasis of solo train travel, like everyone else?

Leaning on elbows that could slice bread, he smiled greasily and nodded as if to say “you’ll like this”.

“You’ll like this” he squeeked in a fay, faintly lascivious cockney whine.

She looked up and smiled unconvincingly, as if to say “no, thank you, I’m too ensconced in my book”. Her eyes returned to the page, but as she tried to read on, she felt his rheumy little peepers crawling over her face.

Spiv

The bony man took a battered tin from his waistcoat pocket. There was something jarring about him. Something awry. Like a rotund, big-breasted women running down the street. Something unlikely, incongruous, precarious about him.

This inkling of oddness bothered her. He should seem more reputable, she mused, clad as he was in a three piece suit and topped with a trilby. Yet despite his obvious sartorial pride, he looked scruffy and crumpled as severely thin men always do. Like a child doing dress-up in father’s clothes. The red tin said Licorice Wafers – for COUGHS due to COLDS. Spindly, simian fingers popped it open to reveal tobacco and cigarette papers.

As he rolled, he spoke.

“You might not think so to look at me, but I’m something of a genius”. She froze. He was apparently addressing the air, but he knew she – as the only soul within touching distance – would feel obliged to respond.

“Pardon?”

tin

As he sealed his oily rag in one fluid movement across his tongue, he settled back – ominously, she thought –  as though he were settling in for a long chat with a good, familiar friend.

“I have made a series of groundbreaking discoveries. Solved age-old and hitherto perplexing mysteries that have furrowed millions of brows and confounded millions of minds. I think you’d like to hear, wouldn’t you”. An assertion playing dress-up as a question. There was something jarring about it.

“I’ll give you an example. Just one. I have solved the Global Odd Sock Enigma”. He spoke these words as if they were capitalised and of tremendous import. “I – and I alone – know what happens to socks that disappear during the laundry cycle”.

“Oh” was all she could muster. As much as she resented him and his presumption, there was something sadly ridiculous about the man. Which was almost endearing. Almost.

He continued. “I mean, we all know the problem. It’s a familiar one. We submit pairs of socks to the laundry cycle. Into the washing machine they go, then out into the garden on the washing line, or clothes’ horse if the weather’s inclement, or tumble dryer if we have the luxury of owning one of those shining white knights of labour-saving amelioration”.

It is a problem, she thought to herself. I mean, this man is an unbearable arse, but it is a problem. Her body began to untense as her interest was piqued and the initial wave of rattled indignation dissipated.

Sock“But when we come to sort, fold and put away our clothes, what do we find? We find hitherto partnered socks in a sudden state of sorry solitude. Their twin vanished without trace. The Global Odd Sock Enigma. And over time, we put these bereaved single socks to one side, perhaps on top of the chest of drawers, or back in the sock drawer, in the eternally-springing hope that they will be returned to a state of duality come the next laundry cycle”.

She wrestled to contain a smile as he repeated the words ‘laundry cycle’, as though he were an expert speaking the argot of some rarefied and recondite academic discipline. His pompous air and self-important speech were inherently ridiculous, and they served to soften his alarming oddness into something approaching an endearing eccentricity. She began to feel a cosying warmth build in the pit of her stomach. Her nods and smiles were now encouraging, inviting and bidding him to continue.

“Until I made my discovery, this remained one of the last great mysteries of our age. Up there with ‘where do we go when we die?’, ‘are we alone in the universe?’ and ‘why is belly button fluff always grey?’. But as to these poor missing socks, where do they go? Are they lost somehow in the washing machine, the only garment diminutive enough to slip through some tiny aperture when wet? Do birds pluck them from the washing line to build their nests with? Well, no. In short. The answer is quite simply this. They are subsumed by larger items. Most usually duvet covers. They find their way into the corners. And we never think to look for them there. So there they remain. The truth is, no sock ever truly gets lost. They are hiding in plain sight. In our drawers, languishing like Jonah in the belly of a textile whale”.

With this he noticed the train pulling into Coventry station – his cue to alight. He picked up his tobacco tin and returned it to his breast pocket. He gripped the brim of his hat between his forefinger and thumb, mimed a little doff, before scurrying down the carriage, through the doors, and off into the soggy winter evening.

She made a mental note to check all her duvet covers and pillow cases when she got home. There were three odd socks that had been sitting on top of her dresser for months now. Rendered redundant and gathering dust.

As the train lurched into life and began to pull away from the platform, she noticed a small moleskin notebook on the table in front of her. Realising it must belong to the bony man, she grabbed it and scoured the platform for any sign of him, but he was long gone. And, besides, there was little she could do now the train was in motion. Except open it and have a read. The contents page was an eyebrow-raiser:

  • The Physics of a Viable Perpetual Motion Machine…p1
  • The Solution to the Global Odd Sock Enigma…p24
  • A Mathematical Proof of the Existence of the Soul…p32
  • Why Belly Button Fluff is always Grey…p33
  • A Quantum Mechanical Explanation of Time Travel as an Existing Phenomena…p49
  • The Solution to the Global Missing Tupperware Lids Enigma…p57

The essays were dense, florid tracts crammed with mathematical ‘proofs’ (she barley scrapped a pass at school so couldn’t discern Nobel physics-prize-brilliance from innumerate nonsense) and a verbose and baroque writing style, falling over itself in a dense thicket of multi-clause sentences and rambling digressions.

Still, if it helped her track down her odd socks and missing Tupperware lids, it was probably worth keeping hold of.

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Science Fiction story

“I can’t believe it’s the year 2087” said Cheng Shakespeare, in a state of disbelief. Behind him a man with a cybernetic eye fed some bitcoins into a levitating vending drone.

Cheng watched a Skybus glide vertically upwards and zoom off above the towering skyscrapers of this moribund synthetic metropolis, making a noise like a synthesiser with an ‘insect’ setting. It was night time, and also really smoggy and raining hard and generally quite depressing in a brutalist post-industrial kind of way but with hover cars.

No-one seemed to have gardens any more. The rampant clamour for dwellings had gobbled up green space as human populations exploded like a protracted number bomb. Since the early twentieth century humanity had been breeding at an unsustainably exponential rate, without so much as a telepathically transferred thought for where it was going to bloody well put itself. A telepathically transferred thought humanity could have had, thanks to Amstrad’s patent Brain-to-Brain Interface of 2019.

0e3b422f-a3de-487e-8e9b-86000aa51c71-274-00000033f975bc7f“You what?!” returned Quasar O’Doherty, somewhat incredulously. Behind him a holographic prostitute was doing her darndest to solicit the custom of a silver-skinned man with self-tailoring clothes.

“What do you mean ‘what?!’?!” Cheng fired back. But before the two men could resolve their frankly aimless exchange, a thunderous bang shook the Lower Twelfth Precinct, which quickly filled with billowing clouds of debris and smoke. The unmistakable sight of two AI Militia materialised from the swirling grey haze, their machine-like gait and USBs-for-bollocks the only subtle signs betraying the inorganic identities of these cybernetic simulcras.

“Shit! Download the Police!” Quasar bellowed, reaching for his iPenis. After just a few seconds of frenzied tapping on his wi-fi enabled nob module, a bank of lasers shot out from the Police headquarters several miles away and 3D-printed a Lawbot on the street in front of the insurgents.

Shakespeare and Quasar flagged down a hovercab which whisked them up through the neon-lit troposphere to a cruising altitude of 4 clicks, and away from danger. From up here civilisation was little more than an ugly inorganic sprawl, neon-lit, rain-soaked and with lots of steam rising from it (at night).

Safely back at Residential Quarter #7569, the two companions took the stairs to the anti-gravity roof restaurant. Quasar ordered the pulled-thylacine sandwich, whilst Chang opted for the banoffee pie via neural upload. Both men had electromagnetic coffee delivered through foot plates underneath the table.

img_0510-1“Well, can you believe it’s the year 2087 now, Cheng Shakespeare?’ Quasar enquired sardonically.

“Yes. Yes I can, Quasar O’Doherty. What with everything that’s just happened, I damn fucking well can”. Both men laughed heartily, before retiring to sit in a dark room for several hours, since the imperative for sleep had been neuro-engineered away, yet people still liked to observe the now antiquated tradition of doing fuck all over night from about 11 until about seven or eightish in the morning.

A Sting in the Tale or Too little, too late

Once upon a time there was a bee. Now, as bees go, she was a contented little bee, full of the joys of spring. A free spirit, she was at her happiest when on the wing in meandering quest for the next flower.

The other bees were in agreement that she was by far the best waggle dancer in the hive. Such was her love of life – it could not be contained and came pouring out of every pore, whatever she turned her boundless energies to.

She was also the kindest, smartest, most sweet-natured bee. Her name was Honey.

5ae1ee7ee4af936d801fda1567f557fe

One bright May morning, as Mr Blackbird hopped his Mesozoic way across the dew-specked lawn in search of unsuspecting bugs, and Mrs Butterfly alighted on a flower, wings spread to soak up the warm caress of the ascending sun, Honey found a patch of fragrant lavender to rest on.

She drew in a breath to drink deep of the sweet, herby scent. She loved lavender most of all the flowers. As she was savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the garden, her attention was caught by a harsh buzzing behind her. She turned to see a surly-looking wasp perched on the violet bracts of a nearby lavender stem. He looked intriguing. A little odd perhaps, but she was strangely drawn to this creature.

The wasp’s name was Nettle. He was a spikey customer. A malcontented soul, aloof and alone with no hive to call home and only worries and bugbears where Honey had curiosities and joys.

Nettle convinced Honey to come back to his home, which was little more than a hole he had excavated in the rockery. As hermitic and ascetic as he was, generally shunning companions and conversation in favour of his own sour company, he couldn’t help but obey the strange swellings of feeling which Honey had stirred in his chest. He had tasted of Honey, and she was very, very sweet.

At first Honey was happy to leave behind the hive, since Nettle was such an intriguing companion. He could be cranky, waspish even, but through the grey clouds of his brooding temperament, a few tantalising rays of something sunnier shone through every now and again, the tentative and fleeting light of a good soul, hidden but struggling to be found.

As Spring rolled into Summer, Honey began to draw out more and more of Nettle’s sweet nature, his humour, his ‘bee-ness’. At times Nettle could be terribly cruel, and Honey felt the sharp stab of his sting on more than one occasion. But she stayed with Nettle, in the dank dark of his earthen chamber, because she loved him, and she thought that, in time, he would come to love her.

Nettle was a talented writer, and Honey was in his thrall whenever he read one of his latest poems by the fireside, as they settled in for another evening in their quiet little home. Through the delight and enchantment of his fine words, there was a vague, undefined sadness that nagged at Honey’s heart, an unrealised desire for something more, a life fuller and richer and more varied beyond the loamy walls of their subterranean nest. But Honey paid it no heed, as she buzzed her wings in appreciation, imploring Nettle to read “just one more” verse.

frenchbeesOne evening Honey was feeling particularly light and giddy. She had been caught in a reverie, fondly remembering the lavish hive parties of her previous life, where the honey would flow, and the waggle dancing would go on well into the night, when she and her dear friend Pollie would always be the last bees standing. She buzzed up to Nettle excitedly and implored him to dance with her. Nettle was in a foul mood and, wheeling around tetchily, rebuked her with words intended to sting:

“Wasps don’t waggle dance, it’s foolish and stupid and so are you, Honey. Now leave me in peace, you frivolous girl”. That night Honey cried herself to sleep. She missed the hive and her friends and the simple pleasures of the garden. She missed being happy-go-lucky and carefree. She missed being Honey.

common-wasp-stingNow, Nettle wasn’t a bad hymenoptera. It was just that he was used to being alone, and his waspishness, his tendency to complaint and criticism, the regular expressions of his captious and tetchy nature were for him, a curious kind of comfort. It was not in his nature, as it was for Honey, to seek solace and sympatico in others. He was slow to trust and quick to judge, and in short he didn’t know how to be sweet like Honey. As much as he loved and appreciated and admired Honey, he couldn’t show it, or at least not consistently, and not without stinging. In fact, quite the opposite. As poor Honey would discover.

The balmy, sun-kissed days of Summer gradually acquiesced to the wind-bitten advances of Autumn. Honey had long since given up hope of  being happy again. She and Nettle no longer enjoyed poems by the fire, or anything much for that matter. As Honey’s inner light died, so too did Nettle’s already meagre attempts to connect with her. Just as Honey’s pure and loving spirit had breathed life into their relationship, so too did her steady diminution into melancholy occasion it’s death.

Death has many forms, the physical just one. But it isn’t only bodies that can die. Hopes, cultures, memories, ideas and loves can all be starved at the root, consigned to eternal erasure.

One chill morning Nettle awoke to find Honey not at his side. He went outside the nest to find the garden swathed in a blanket of white, the snowfall was heavy last night, he thought to himself. As he yawned a whisping trail of vapour into the freezing morning air, he saw a shape ahead of him, quite still on the frozen ground. A familiar yellow and black form crumpled in a heap.

beeinsnow

Flying over he immediately recognised it as Honey, cold and dead, next to a single snowdrop which had emerged, defiantly, from the snow. In that moment Nettle felt a stab of something that was new and unknown to him. His legs gave way and he crumpled to the cold whiteness below, his head resting on Honey. A surge of sadness overwhelmed him, and he felt as though he was drowning as a mighty river of feeling burst within him.

Tears flowed as he heard a cracked, guttural cry of grief take flight from his mouth. His love for Honey was pouring out. Deluging and crashing like terrible waves around him. Stinging him with a million barbs.

On that frozen winter morning, as Mr Blackbird hopped his Mesozoic way across the entombed lawn in hopeful search for breadcrumbs, Nettle found his heart. He expressed his love.

But it was a futile love. Too little, too late.

Wet Lace

Her shiny shins gleamed in the lascivious flicker of the candle. Pam had waxed all traces of hair from every bit of her yearning feminine body in preparation for Jim’s visit. Including, whilst absent-mindedly agonising over when exactly blue cheese is unfit for consumption, her eyebrows.

“I like a naked flame” cooed Jim, but not like a dove, like a man paving the way for genital coupling.

c42841c0-378b-41d0-9d0e-d2af760b503c-280-0000004b6a3f1855_tmp“I adore candle light” Pam trilled, but not like a budgie, like a woman inviting a man to persist in paving the way for genital coupling. “There’s just something so…” she searched for the right word, performing an inadvertant little royal wave with her hand as she did so. “…thrilling about striking a match. Grasping the shaft and making it’s little pink head explode with a quick flick of my fingers”.

“Matches” Jim returned, confusingly, too distracted by an overwhelming surge through his groin. A sex storm which shorted his mental processes, like a sort of erotic stroke. A dribbling dog with biscuit balanced on his nose, Jim trembled with a beautiful agony awaiting the command. And Pam ALWAYS issued a command.

“That smell” Jim said through knitted brow, as he tried to place the exotic scent that hung, like like an invisible odour, or an atmospheric flavour, or a mysterious nasal language, in the air.

“You like it? That’s the candle, bought it today. Prosecco and oysters. David Hasselhoff’s new Hoffrodesiac range at Matalan”.

dcf56f88-e240-4f22-86f4-021a6811b632-280-0000004857517143_tmp“Yes, I was wondering why I’d been thinking about the harbour at Whitstable. I like it. They do some fantastic ranges there. Tom Kerridge’s Stinking Bishop Bath Moose is divine. Extremely relaxing and goes great with a glass of red, if you’re an ablution boozer that is!”.

Pam poured Jim a disaronno and Sprite, and sashayed over to the bed to hand it to him. Without warning, she felt an urgent pressure in her colon. With only a split second to settle on a gambit to mask the loud fart that this substantial bubble of feculent tummy gas would inevitably produce, Pam slammed Jim’s drink at the wall, inches from his head. On the plus side the impact and the smashing glass more than covered her bassy bum beefbelch.

“PAM! You’re god damn crazy, woman. Come here you unhinged mare”. Jim pulled Pam onto the bed, and kissed her fulsomely, like a starving man trying to eat an orange through a letterbox. Pam swung her leg over Jim and, in one smooth movement, subsumed his cock into her knicker-mouth.

27101955-2b80-4945-963b-06ec91d1b4cd-280-00000049a7136a35_tmp“Ride me like a rodeo bull, you sexy little cowgirl”.

“Sink your pink in my pocket, you filthy little snookerboy”.

Pam and Jim committed coitus for 7 hours and twenty three minutes, pausing only three times; for the pizza delivery, severe cramp and because Jim thought he could hear a ghost.

Blues and terrible twos

Two constables were working like Dutch whores in stag weekend high season to keep the growing crowd of rubber neckers and busy bodies at bay. As the investigating officer glided through the increasingly unruly throng of curious locals and into the relative calm of the crime scene, one of the officers instinctively went to lift the police tape to allow her to proceed unchecked. To his transitory astonishment, this wasn’t necesssary.

BRITAIN-LATVIA-CRIME-MURDER“This your first suspicious death?” enquired Detective Sergeant Nigel Muck. He was stood at the foot of the stiff: a well dressed, portly middle aged man with an expensive salon cut and bruising to his throat and face. The corpse, that is. Muck was a slovenly shit of a slaphead beanpole.

Without warning she stopped still in her tracks and fixed him with an incredulous, faintly amused look. Clearly feeling uneasy under her searching gaze, he muttered “don’t, er, I mean, well, take as long as you need, this is a real tit-twister. A bloody arsing great shitemare of a head-scratcher”. With that, Muck fished a Crunchie from his Parka pocket, and exited the room masticating horribly.

73e0ff11-7c85-439c-988f-6e6659eeba60-237-00000021f2fac38c_tmp“What happened to the man?” she asked, pointing at the prone unfortunate.

“It’s a bit of a mystery I’m afraid, ma’am” replied a forensic scene of crime officer, who was busily taking photographs, making the tatty little room at the top of this cramped Docklands bedsit feel like the world’s saddest fashion shoot.

“There are clear signs of a struggle, and yet the room was locked from the inside with only that tiny” he gestured with his camera “velux window in the roof. Only about 10 by 12 inches. I mean, you could probably” he tailed off, thinking better of suggesting that his superior could feasibly have been the mysterious Spring-heeled Jack that perpetrated this fiendish act. “His injuries” he continued, “are consistent with strangulation, and we’ve pinned the time of death to between 24 and 27 hours ago”.

ef5fcf00-82a3-4aa8-955d-4f4f42ecce26-237-00000023eccb36ac_tmp“Stangly-ayshon. Twenty teighty four hour wowers” she mused, drawing out and lingering on her words as though they tasted lovely. Her grin disappeared when she saw that the SOC officer was staring at her with a half disbelieving, half disdainful expression.

“NO! Why is the man there for?” she barked. Her unsignalled annoyance made the officer start, and he sheepishly picked up from where he had left off.

“Odd thing is, at precisely that time this room was being used by the young man who rents it. He’s one of those internet vloggers“. The last two words he said with special emphasis, as though at pains to signal that he found them alien or objectionable to utter. He might just as easily have said ‘one of those piss fetishists‘.

He continued. “He was doing some sort of live stream. Four hours and thirty seven minutes of utter bollocks. But as alibis go, it’s water tight”.

She hopped back and forth between legs, all the while shaking her head. Clearly a brilliant maverick, he thought, some sort of Holmesian savant, must be why she’s on the force so young, obviously a brilliant mind. But she was awfully young. Too young. It was silly, really.

“Well ma’am, what happened to him?”.

1ca504ef-2a6c-49c4-a1a4-648662e10519-237-00000029eb554368_tmp“That man POOED himself ‘cos he was very naugh-ty. And then he didn’t, and he did because YOU stangly-ayshon him with you BUM”. On this staccato ‘bum’ she dropped to the floor and started rolling back and forth, asserting every now and then that she was a “floppety spider” and a “no-face”.

The Chief Superintendent walked in at the height of her asylum worthy floor-based antics. “Shame” he muttered. “Such promise but clearly the job is just too damn much for her”.

“Is 30 months too young, sir?” offered the female Inspector at his side. “I mean, if you consider that there are 216 months in 18 years, is 30 months enough time to develop all the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to be a police detective?”.

c7b429be-3340-4ccd-9c31-44ed3273bf3d-237-00000028fd21c83c_tmp“Five minutes ago, I would have replied a resounding ‘yes’. But now”, he paused to observe the diminutive sleuth edging round the room whilst wearing the dead man’s shoes and issuing high pitched squeaks, “I’m not so sure”.

The Reckoning

I

Somewhere, an inconceivably massive number of calculations is taking place. It could be in the cloud, in the clouds or beyond the planets. It might equally be in a parallel realm or outside of space-time, perhaps inside a hollowed out mountain or flowing through a global network of supercomputers. The knowledge of the who, where, how or why hardly matters. Just as the ant neither needs to, nor can know anything of the freshly boiled kettle in the hands of the sadistic child.

Every second a zettabyte of information flows in and is assimilated. Information harvested from computer records, CCTV, biosensors, mobile phones, emails, brainwave monitors, paper records, diaries, dream logs, social media, in short every touch point between ourselves and the world – everywhere we leave an impression, scent, echo or trace – is added to the scales. Unknowable magnitudes of metadata for every living thing on the third celestial body from the G2V star of the Milky Way. All added to the scales. Which way they tip is the Reckoning.

He’d had a good life. Actually, no. That’s just an insipid platitude we trot out to comfort our fear-stricken minds. He was scared shitless at the thought of his imminent, eternal erasure. Even the defensive humour reflex catapulting his thoughts to a never ending purgatory loop of synth pop couldn’t cheer or divert him. No. This was the awful icewater-in-the-face clarity of dying and losing everything.

Think of it for a moment. Think that after you go to bed tonight, in the wee small hours as you lie supine and unconscious, your heart stutters to a stop. And your veins go still and cold. And whatever you are, or were, whatever the beautifully improbable thing that’s been haunting your meat module is, just leaves…forever. Dreams fade to black as the electrical storms in your brain flicker to nothing. And you never wake up. Gone.

He was subsumed by that paralysing, sublime terror. The visceral realisation that our life has an irreversible, immutable end game that has us trembling, pleading and acquiescing all at once. But in actual fact he had, according to the balance of the Reckoning, had a good life.

II

He had always had a keen moral sense. A felt and lived sympatico with his fellows, his lodestar was good intention. From an early age he was peculiarly sensitive to the inner states of others, aware that his happiness, sense of self worth, sanity even were all intimately connected to and contingent upon those self same states in other people.

At the age of twelve he had crossed the playground to stand next to, and talk to, a boy who had been singled out as whipping boy for the cruel pleasure of the pack. At seventeen he befriended a house-bound octogenarian lady on his street, got bits for her from the shops, went round for a cup of tea and to indulge her in her reminiscences. In his first management role at the age of twenty seven he had effectively saved someone from taking their life, although he never knew. The switch from being managed by a bullying autocrat to a nurturing coach was the ray of light this poor suicidal soul needed to summon the will to drag themself back to functioning and, in time, happiness. But he never knew.

He wasn’t perfect. Which, as utterances go, is a little like saying grey isn’t white. Mostly his sins were venal – commuting his bad mood to gormless first jobbers in the service industry, littering, not suffering fools, neglecting friendships. But he was never cruel, never wilfully unkind, never truly selfish.

There was that time, when he was eight or nine, when he kicked a frog over a fence. And the time he tried to evade a fare in a private hire cab by climbing out of one of the back windows. He’d lost his coat in a frenzied tug of war with the driver, having slipped out of it like Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s field. The madcap impulsivity of adolescence. The reckless thrill-seeking of our youth. But yes, all in all, it had been a good life.

III

The Oncology Ward was at the top of a labyrinthine Victorian hospital. High, spartan, white walls gave it that cold, institutional air – imbued with an atmosphere of benign torpor, a stoic resignation that often comes from a foreknowledge of death. He had his own room, at least. In a liminal state, just below consciousness yet still dimly aware of the room around him, he sensed the presence of another close by. His brain logged the fleeting moment of shade as something walked round the bed and in front of the window. Despite this, he felt no panic. Rather, he opened his eyes with a beautific sensation of calm and clarity. Turning his head towards the window he saw a man, well groomed and kindly looking, smiling back at him.

‘Hello Phillip’ said the man. ‘My name is Peter, and I’m here for your Reckoning’.

Phillip nodded, slowly, as though in assent although, in truth he hadn’t understood anything of what Peter had just said. He glanced down to read the identity badge clipped onto the lapel of Peter’s suit jacket. It read:

Peter St. Keys,
Ingress Coordinator
Nacre Gate Passing Solutions

In the kind, calm voice of a parent talking their child out of upset, Peter asked softly ‘you are aware that you are dying, Phillip?’

‘Yes’ his whispered reply. ‘I’m just running on fumes, I know’.

‘I am here to deliver your Reckoning verdict. Now, this will all seem very strange, if not fantastical. I know. But I want you to listen to your instinct. I think you are ready to hear what I have to say, and I also think you are aware that this moment is a transcedent one for you’.

Phillip was neither curious nor alarmed by this. He was aware only of an utterly alien feeling of serenity and perfect peace. It wasn’t just that this was a feeling different in degree to anything he had experienced throughout his life. It was altogether different in kind, hitherto foreign and unknown. It was bliss.

‘I’ll use language that you’ll understand’ continued Peter. ‘We – the entity I represent – deal in big data. Every action, every interaction you have had since you became a sentient lifeform we have collected, quantified and added to the balance of your Reckoning. Every thought, word, deed, sin – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact we have monitored and thrown into the balance. You are no special case, I should add. This we do – have done, will do forever more – for every senteint thing. At the end of every life we deliver the Reckoning, which is a calculation of impact, good bad or somewhere inbetween, of that life.’

Phillip smiled and let out a little grunt as he enjoyed a private joke with himself. ‘Are you sure you’re not Peter St. Nicholas? That sounds a lot like his naughty and nice list’. He was eager to amuse this stranger, oddly drawn to him as he was.

‘You’ve got it’ replied Peter through a warm grin, ‘except for Christmas, read Annihilation’. They both smiled. It was an immensely pleasurable exchange for Phillip. Which was paradoxical since it centred on that most feared existential threat. But all thoughts of that were gone. Now there was only a delicious warmth radiating out from his solar plexus and galvanising his entire body.

‘In essence, those with a positive score are granted an extension. And the length of that extension is commensurate with the size of that score’.

‘An extension?’

‘An extension. Advances in gerontology have enabled us to fully crack the millennia-old conundrum of ageing. For a long time we have been able to retard or arrest the process, but now we can reverse it’.

‘Since when?’.

‘Oh, last century, 2016 I think. Don’t worry about the details, it’s enough for you to know that we can and that I am here in that regard’.

‘If you would just humour me’ said Phillip, ‘I’ve been a scientist all my working life. I’m just interested I suppose’.

‘OK. Well, a Japanese team put us on to the epigenetic theory. They honed in on two sections of DNA that control the production of a particular amino acid – glycine. You’ll like this, most people do, they bathed a cell line derived from a 97-year-old in glycine for ten days, and found that it restored the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy and actually reversed some age related defects’.

‘Neat’, Phillip cooed. ‘I had no idea’.

‘Would you like to receive your Reckoning?’

Silence. Just the hum of the ceiling fan, the indistinct hubbub ricocheting up from the street several storeys below, and the buzz-buzz-tap-buzz of a fly being confounded by the window.

‘Yes’

IV

Peter St. Keys looked uncharacterisically solemn as he reached into his jacket breast pocket. His fingers emerged clutching a small piece of paper, the size of a library catalogue card. He read from it in a steady, sonorous voice.

‘Phillip James Gregory. During the course of your 59 years, 7 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, 14 hours, 7 minutes and -‘ he looked up to meet Phillip’s eyes with a wry grin ‘I think that’s specific enough -‘ he resumed his recitation ‘all of you thoughts, words, deeds, dreams, sins – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact, has been monitored, quantified, and added to the balance. Your Reckoning, as you face 34 minutes left of life, is a net benefit and statistically significant positive impact. You have therefore been granted an extension of 6 years and 2 months’. He looked up again, narrowed his eyes and whispered ‘well done!’ with a heartfelt, affirmative nod of the head.

‘I’m fine, thank you. I’m ready’.

Peter cocked his head and, raising an eyebrow, echoed ‘ready?’.

‘Yes’ Phillip asserted, firmly yet cheerfully.

‘Are you sure? No-one has ever refused an extension’.

‘Yes’. Phillip closed his eyes. He drew in a long, deep breath. ‘I reckon so’.

Do Unto Others

He felt his fists balling in anger as he watched the Alsatian deposit its feculent pay load, the third of the week, on the pavement between his gate and the road. It’s owner, a bald, badly dressed mouth breather with faded green prison tattoos and a violent criminal stare, sucked vacantly on a vape contraption. He looked like an ape orally exploring a piece of alien technology. The fucking unthinking cunt.

3ea83fe5-bd13-448b-83ab-d2204a2d2999-215-0000003e2e870d93_tmpThe dog finished its crap and lurched off. The man followed, although not before sending a lump of spit hurtling into the hedge. No thought to bag up his dog’s business. A gift to the neighbourhood, a freshly squeezed little tower of shit to surprise unsuspecting shoes and pramwheels. Well, not quite this one. This one was bagged up. With the man and dog still in sight, he followed behind at a discrete distance, the little orange bag of warm crap swinging from his fingers.

He followed his quarry a couple of streets away, where they went into number 25 Staunton Terrace. Biding his time, it wasn’t long before he saw a light go on upstairs. Swiftly he made his move down the driveway. At the door he tore open the bag, lifted the letterbox open with his index fingers and gently jiggled the turds through. With a satisfying ‘phut’ they hit the carpet inside the hallway. Nervously, excitedly, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several flat but heavy stones, which he also dropped through the letterbox. As they hit the dog shit they squashed it deep into the carpet fibres, ensuring maximum disgust and difficulty to clean out.

Walking home he felt buoyed by a warm surge of righteousness. Natural justice had been dispensed, a wrong had been righted. Biblical, perhaps, but no less just for that.

a375b65e-df9e-4c0c-a642-b68a2697cbb2-215-0000003dcfad6a16_tmpRounding the corner of Parson Drive, he slowed his pace to watch a young woman size up the gap between a badly parked car and a hedge. Adjudging it too narrow, she had no choice but to push her pram around the car on the road, her mouth drawn tight with frustration. As he crossed over he reached into his coat pocket and clutched his door key tightly. Manipulating it between his middle and index fingers, like some covert prison shank, he slipped his hand back out of his pocket and pressed the key hard into the pristine paintwork of the selfish areshole’s Audi, holding it on to leave a good foot long scratch, in one smooth movement as he walked by. Untraceable. Expensive. A just dessert.

At around 8 o’clock it started again. Mr Mayhew next door always seemed to come to life every evening about this time. The cavity-less 1930s wall that divided their dwellings might well have muffled much of the sound of that analogue age, but it was no match for the decibels kicked out by Mr Mayhew’s Bose bins. Classic rock filled his living room, almost as clearly as it did Mr Mayhew’s. It was a maddening intrusion, an unforgivable encroachment into his private sanctuary. Mr Mayhew couldn’t have affronted him more if he’d let himself in the kitchen door, popped the kettle on and fixed himself a sandwich.

There was none of the instant karma he was used to with this one. No, this was a slow burn, a long game. The first symptom was a ringing in the ears. He knew Mr Mayhew was suffering from tinnitus because he heard him speaking to his family on the phone, when he would complain, rather loudly – no doubt as a consequence – of his aural disturbance. Some months after the onset of the tinnitus he had been delighted to see Mr Mayhew fall over in the street. It wasn’t icy out and it was barely 10 in the morning, so booze wasn’t a likely candidate. No, he was sure that it must be the next symptom. Loss of balance.

730b683e-6b21-4d94-9527-e8d46eb8c4d1-215-0000003f62db286d_tmpMr Mayhew’s inner ear was under attack. The cells that regulated his hearing and balance were losing a protracted and covert war being waged by a cocktail of ototoxic medicines that were being syringed into his gold top every morning. The aspirin was easy enough to come by. Six of those over-the-counter little bad boys every day. The neomycin he liked, an antibiotic with particular toxicity for the cochlear. That, along with the ethacrynic acid, the viomycin and the chemotherapy drugs were hard to come by, but not impossible. Very soon, if it were not already the case, the nerve damage would be permanent. Irreversible. And then there will be no merit in playing your music, will there Mr Mayhew. And our living rooms will fall silent. Yours, dispiritingly so. Mine, blissfully.

He felt a dull twinge of conscience. Once or twice. After all, this wasn’t anything a good scrub with bleach or visit to a car body shop could fix. But it was really the only fitting punishment. This was, beyond doubt, the most heinous of all selfish behaviours. That which invades, pollutes, makes intolerable another’s private space.