2021 Short Story Winners

The Battle for Jennings Grange

By Dave McVey

3 John McLean Terrace
Braefield
17 September

Mr Jennings,

Perhaps you have heard of me. I am the present Chair of Braefield Socialist Alliance, Brian Mackay.

I am writing to you about your home, Jennings Grange. I have been undertaking research into the building and your circumstances. I learn that your home has 15 bedrooms and five reception rooms as well as kitchens, dining rooms, a conservatory and bathrooms.

I calculate that up to 15-20 people could live comfortably in the building. At present, there is just yourself and Mrs Jennings as well as a live-in member of staff, or ‘servant’, as he is termed.

I am sure that in mature consideration you will agree that this represents not only a waste, but also a criminal neglect and misuse of property. Many people still live in poverty and homelessness is a growing problem locally.

At our most recent meeting, we of the BSA proposed the formation of a Jennings Grange Workers’ Soviet to organise and allocate the accommodation in the building to those who need it. Yourself and Mrs Jennings would, of course, be invited to serve on the Soviet, under my Chairship. You would also be guaranteed accommodation within the Grange proportionate to your needs. Your ‘servant’ would be liberated to find work elsewhere.

I trust that this proposal will be acceptable to you. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience so that we may begin working on this auspicious project.

Yours sincerely
Comrade Brian Mackay

*****

Jennings Grange
By Braefield
22 September

Mr Mackay,

Thank you for your letter of 17th inst. The comments have been noted. No, I had not heard of you.

Please note that I am Lord Jennings and letters should address me in this manner. Thank you for your co-operation.

Yours sincerely,

Jennings

*****

3 John McLean Terrace
Braefield
24 September

Mr Jennings,

I am disappointed that you have chosen to reply to my proposal in such dismissive terms. Meanwhile, your home remains echoing and largely empty at the same time as dozens of local people suffer from want of reasonable housing.

I would add that neither myself nor the other members of the BSA care a jot for titles and honours. There will be no ‘lords’ and no ‘servants’ when we achieve our socialist aims.

In the BSA we believe in acting locally and thinking globally. We do not want simply to be protestors, but beacons, shining on the path forward. We offered you the chance to willingly be a part of this new, progressive movement.

If you do not submit willingly to our proposals we will, of course, have to consider alternative approaches.

Yours in socialism,

Comrade Brian Mackay

*****

Jennings Grange
By Braefield
5 October

Mr Mackay,

I enclose a copy of a letter which I have today sent to my lawyers, Messrs Graceless of Stiff of High Street, Braefield, informing them about the alarming threat towards the end of your letter of 24 September.

I would advise you that, whatever merits you claim to see in your social housing project for a building that stands where several Lord Jennings of Braefield have lived for six centuries, whatever threats you make to those of us born with the burden of property and lineage, the greatest victim of your campaign of intimidation so far has been my servant, Hopkins. Your letters have caused him great distress. He is currently on sick leave.

I trust you are proud of the upset you have caused to a member of ‘the working class’.

Yours etc.

Jennings.

*****

3 John McLean Terrace
Braefield
18 October

Mr Jennings,

Your reign of terror over this area, the brutal dominance of your family, which has lasted for centuries, nears its end!

Comrade Hopkins, late of your employment, is the newest member of the Braefield Socialist Alliance. We feel that his inside knowledge will prove valuable to our future operations.

I have received a letter from your lawyers. The legal profession has a long and dishonourable record of antipathy toward the working classes. Your lawyerly acolytes appear to continue this disgraceful tradition.

The letter has been burned.

Yours in the Revolution,

Comrade Brian Mackay

*****

Jennings Grange
By Braefield
21 October

Mr Mackay,

I read your latest letter having just attended to my wife. Lady Jennings has become ill with worry and currently there is no one else to help me look after her.

I suggest, sir, that you are very different from the way you see yourself; far from being a crusading socialist, you are actually an oppressor of the weak and elderly. I have had to arrange for my wife to convalesce elsewhere for the next few weeks so that she may be spared the continuing poison emanating from yourself.

Have you no shame, sir?

Yours etc.

Jennings.

*****

3 John McLean Terrace
Braefield
1 November

Mr Jennings,

Much has happened since the last scurrilous letter I received from you, the one in which you cubically questioned my socialist credentials. You will know from separate correspondence that the long-oppressed Mrs Jennings, whom you sent away for convalescence, now regards herself as freed from your tyranny and has become a member of the Braefield Socialist Alliance.

Your household is crumbling, as will, one day, the whole capitalist edifice of this nation. I would use this opportunity to urge you to bring some positive result out of all this. Let us, as first proposed many months ago, proceed with the Jennings Grange Workers’ Soviet and the associated social housing project. Most of your household have joined us – why do you not do so yourself, and end the farcical situation of living alone in that vast house while many remain homeless?

Yours in the certainty of proletarian victory,

Comrade Brian Mackay

*****

Jennings Grange
By Braefield
5 May

Mr Mackay,

Many months have passed, Mr Mackay, since we have been in correspondence. These months have given me an opportunity to think, to review my attitudes and, perhaps, to repent.

I shall not keep this fine house to myself any more. Indeed, I shall not live in it at all. Over the next two weeks I shall be removing my belongings. By the 10th of next month, the premises will be vacated; you will be permitted free access to them and can do what you will.

If you require any further particulars after that date, you can correspond via my lawyers, whose address, of course, you know.

Yours etc

Jennings.

*****

3 John McLean Terrace
Braefield
15 June

Messrs Graceless and Stiff,

It gives we of the Braefield Socialist Alliance no pleasure to have to correspond with shameless exploiters of the weak such as yourselves. However, on the 10th of this month, we occupied Jennings Grange as instructed by Mr (called by some ‘Lord’) Jennings and were very displeased to find the place not only emptied of all furniture and fittings but open and unlocked and in a state of some distress owing to vandalism. And water and electricity appear no longer to be supplied.

If this is how your client treats the fabric entrusted to him, we can only rejoice that the socialist revolution is almost upon us.

However, we do recognise that whilst the present corrupt dispensation persists, we will require some documentation to assert our legal right to the premises and I look forward to your furnishing us with this at an early juncture. Notice I stress our legal right – our moral right is already without question.

I look forward to an early response.

Yours in the vanguard of social change

Comrade Brian Mackay

*****

Casa Escosia
Spain
1 July

Mr Mackay!

Greetings from my magnificent new home on one of Spain’s most exclusive and delectable coasts! I trust my ex-wife and Hopkins are well.

I wonder how you fared in your brief and quite illegal tenure of Jennings Grange? Graceless and Stiff have forwarded your letter and it gave me a good laugh. By now I expect that a security firm has turfed you out of the building to enable them to close it off and prevent public access before the building is demolished prior to the new Braefield Bypass slicing through the former park.

For all it looked as if it had always stood there, the present Jennings Grange was a nondescript construction of 1910 which tried to mimic an ancient building with later additions but failed, except to unpractised and ignorant eye like your own. Lacking any listed status from Historic Environment Scotland, it was ripe for compulsory purchase but, frankly, the amount I received was far more than the miserable building was worth.

Hence my residence here, in Casa Escocia.

You’d like it. I’m sure the former Lady Jennings would have loved it too.

You will be pleased to know that, before I left Scotland forever, I made several substantial donations to local homeless charities and to the Braefield Housing Association. But I have further decisions of great moment to face. For example, as soon as this letter is completed, shall Juanita and I (do make sure that Lady Jennings knows there is a Juanita) disport ourselves in my pool, or will we motor up to the mountains for an afternoon of skiing?

I shall make my decision whilst Juanita massages my weary back muscles.

My very best wishes,

Jennings.


A Week Ago Last Tuesday

by John Bunting

Nuts, I thought, to revenge being a bitter dish best served cold.  Tonight, when the chance comes, mine is going to be hot and sweet!  With a smirk of anticipation, I pushed open the door and limped in. 

Andrea and Suzy were sitting at our usual bench near the bar, hunched over their lagers and mobiles.  Same old same old.  I made my way over and squeezed in next to them.  “Hey there, long time no see.” 

            “Hi, um, Julie,” said Andrea vaguely, waving at the barman for another round of drinks.  “What is it, a couple of weeks?”

            “Six, actually.”

“How many?” muttered Suzy without looking up from her mobile.

“Six,” I repeated testily. 

“Oh, doesn’t time fly. Been away?”

 There you go again.  More interested in your bloody phones than what I say.  I sighed noisily.  “Yes, Suzy, I’ve been away.  Don’t you remember me telling you I was going to have knee surgery after my climbing accident?”

Suzy giggled at a meme she’d just received.  “I don’t, no.”

“Well, I did, several times.”

“Uh hu.”

I took a long, slow drink of ice-cold lager.  Wait for it.  “So,” I said eventually, “anything interesting happened while I’ve been away?”

“Can’t think,” muttered Andrea, scrolling through her photos.  “You, Suzy?”  Suzy shook her head.

Right, this is my chance.  I took a deep breath.  “Something interesting happened to me recently.”

“To you?” giggled Andrea, putting down her mobile at last.  “Really.”  She winked at Suzy.  “Something interesting?  Go on then.”

Having got their attention for once, I settled back to tell my story.

******************************************

“When I woke up after the knee operation, the Consultant was standing at the end of my bed, studying my notes.” 

“ ‘How did it go?’  I asked her.”

 “ ‘Fine, Ms Branding,’ she replied, ‘although there is something I need to tell you.’ ” 

“ ‘That doesn’t sound good,’ I said.”

“The Consultant came over and sat down beside me.  ‘It’s nothing to worry about.  Can you feel a small swelling just above your right kidney?’ ”

“ ‘This one?’ I asked, prodding about behind me.  ‘What is it?’ ” 

“ ‘That’s right.  When we finished your operation, we decided to try a bit of an experiment.  We installed a gadget we developed recently called a Self-Operated Muscle Enhancer, or SOMER for short.’ ” 

“I was shocked.  ‘Why?  You didn’t ask my permission beforehand!’ ”

“The Consultant looked at me guiltily.  ‘Didn’t I?’ she mumbled.  ‘Oh, err, I’m very sorry, it was a last-minute thing.  We didn’t think you’d mind.  But you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.’ ”

“ ‘What does it do?’ I asked, still cross with her.” 

“ ‘The SOMER is designed to give the operated leg a boost if you feel any weakness in it.  Under that swelling in your back is a sort of on/off switch.  When your leg feels tired, all you do is press it.’  The consultant giggled.  ‘The switch, I mean, not your leg.  The SOMAR stimulates the nerves, which in turn stimulate your leg muscles.  Is that all clear?’ ”

“ ‘I suppose so.  But I’m still upset you didn’t ask me first.’ ”

“ ‘Yes, I’m sorry about that again, but I’m sure you’ll find the SOMAR very helpful.  The battery will run down in about nine months and we’ll take everything out at your twelve-month review.’  The Consultant stood up and shook my hand.  ‘Good luck, Ms Branding.’ ”

I took a drink of lager and continued.  “Three days later I was discharged.  I don’t mind telling you, the recovery programme was painful, but I got through it.  One day, a week ago last Tuesday, actually, I decided I’d walk to the shops and really push the knee to its limit.  That went fine, but on the way back my operated leg started to tire badly and I decided to try the SOMER.  I hadn’t used it before because… well, anyway, I reached round and pressed the switch.  Immediately, I knew something was wrong.  There was a loud bang and I felt an excruciating pain up my back – as if someone was holding a burning match to it.  But the worst thing was that the operated leg started goose-stepping up and down like John Cleese on speed!  I couldn’t stop it!  What’s more, it was moving much faster than I could on my other leg, so all I could do to stop myself falling over was to walk round in circles!  Round and round I went, faster and faster, until eventually I managed to grab hold of a lamp-post and sort of slide down it onto my bottom, my leg still banging up and down on the pavement.” 

“The next thing that happened was that, when I phoned the hospital for help, they didn’t believe me.  They thought I was high on my painkillers!  I had to pay in advance for a private ambulance before they would send one.  So, there I am, in the middle of the High Street, slumped back against a lamppost with my shopping scattered all about me, my mobile in one hand and credit card in the other, screaming in pain and with this bloody leg bouncing up and down like a demented pile-driver!  It was awful – people were sitting down beside me taking selfie videos!”

“Thankfully, the ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedics got me into it.  One of them sat on my dodgy leg to hold it down while the other drove us back to the Hospital.  All was OK until about a mile out when the driver shouted through that The Consultant wanted me stripped and gowned up ready for surgery as soon as we arrived.  The paramedic sitting on my leg started getting my clothes off, but just as she finished the ambulance hit a large pothole.  I was thrown off my trolley and landed on the floor, right on the SOMER switch.  That caused another electrical short, and my leg started bouncing up and down even harder!  My knee caught the paramedic flush on the chin, splitting her lip and knocking her across the ambulance.  The driver, hearing all the commotion, turned round to see what was happening and in doing so lost control of the ambulance.  We veered across the road, hit a tree and toppled over onto our side.”

I put my head in my hands as I recalled the distressing events.  “I think I must have passed out because the next thing I remember is someone thumping on the top of the ambulance, which of course was now its side.  I shouted for help and whoever it was forced open one of the rear doors.  An old man peered in.”  Here I paused momentarily for dramatic effect.  “Now… try to imagine the scene from his point of view.  He’s driving along a pretty country lane, minding his own business, when he comes across an ambulance lying on its side, the driver wandering around bleeding and dazed.  I expect he’s frightened.  He bangs on the ambulance and hears someone shouting.  He manages to get a door open and is confronted by a stark-naked woman, lying there cursing her head off, her right leg thrashing up and down violently, with her 36Ds and privates in full view bouncing about all over the place.”  I shrugged.  “The poor thing nearly had a heart attack.”

“After that, everything’s a bit of a blur again.  At some point, another ambulance arrived, I was loaded into it, and we set off again for the Hospital.  I know my Anaesthetist was with us that time because I remember him sitting astride me, injecting me with painkillers.  At first, he complained colourfully as my leg repeatedly jerked up into his groin, but by the time we arrived at the Hospital I noticed he’d gone rather quiet and that there was a big smile on his face.  I can’t think why.”

“As soon as we parked up, I was taken into the surgery.  Unfortunately, to get there quickly we had to go through Reception where several people were waiting for consultations.  You should have seen the looks on their faces as I was wheeled through, naked, shouting and cursing that I was going to sue the Consultant for every penny she’d got, and with my leg crashing up and down noisily on the flimsy trolley.  Following behind me, a trail of bloodied and confused paramedics and a still grinning Anaesthetist.  I don’t think the Hospital registered many new customers that day.” 

“At least when we got into surgery they didn’t mess about.   No anaesthetic or anything.  Straight away, they rolled me onto my side and the Consultant lunged at me with a huge knife.  She made a quick cut across the top of the switch, stuck her fingers in and ripped the whole bloody SOMER out in one go, throwing it across the room in disgust.  After that, things calmed down a bit.  They stitched me up, gave me something more for the pain, and took me back to a room.  They kept me in for a couple of days to make sure I was OK and then, after we’d agreed on substantial compensation, and I mean substantial, I’ll never have to work again, compensation, they released me.  And, well, here I am.”

**********************************************

For the first time since I’d started my story, I looked up at Andrea and Suzy.  Both were sitting stock still, staring at me with eyes and mouths wide open in total shock; their mobiles for once forgotten, their drinks held frozen halfway to their mouths.  It was if, for them, time had stopped.  Gotcha!  I looked across at the barman, who had overheard most of the story.  He too was still, the pint he was pouring forgotten and overflowing down his trousers.  All around, the pub had gone quiet as more and more people realised something unusual was happening and turned to look.  Yes!  

Slowly, I finished my lager and put my glass down on the bench.  “Anyway,” I said loudly, savouring the surge of sweet revenge, “that’s what happened to me a week ago last Tuesday.  I thought you might find it interesting.”

End


The Gobbledygook

by Richard Hooton

IT dwells in the darkness where it feasts on our most fundamental fears. Born from vanity and subterfuge, it causes confusion, disseminates doubt, creates chaos. Once it’s taken root it cannot be stopped, looming larger, more malevolent, increasingly insidious. Slowly, surely, without warning, it creeps into your conscience, its pernicious influence spreading like oil leaking across the sea, its slick smear suffocating everything in its path.

            Sam felt an urgent prodding against his shoulder and spluttered awake.

            ‘Ehh?’ As the blurry office materialised into focus, he wiped drool from his stubbly chin. ‘What is it?’

He swiped at the bony finger.

            ‘You gotta get up.’ The voice rasped. ‘They’re coming.’

            Sam turned to face paint-splattered, brown overalls and the smell of sawdust. He looked up at a craggy face, unkempt beard and rumpled grey hair.

            It was just Ted, the building’s caretaker.

            Sam, his mind a swirl of moths, pushed himself upright. He saw the mug of cold, congealed coffee, the blank computer monitor, the crumpled papers. It was coming back to him at a snail’s pace. He’d been working late on a report … the only person left in the office … had to get it finished for first thing this morning …

Sam groaned. Must have dozed off and been there all night.

            ‘Shit.’ He clicked his computer back into life. ‘Thanks, Ted.’

            Colleagues were lumbering into the open-plan room, steadily removing overcoats and propping up umbrellas.

            ‘Told yer,’ muttered Ted, his green eyes flitting. ‘’ere they is.’

            Sam frantically scanned the report on his screen. He’d been proofreading before sending it to print.

            Something icy slithered down his spine. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing.

            ‘Boss’ll be ‘ere any mo, lad.’

            A besuited figure strolled across the beige carpet on his way to the separate office at the far end. Ted looked as proud as Nostradamus.

            ‘How the hell has this happened?’ Sam clutched his head, giddy with grey fluttering. ‘I didn’t write that!’

            Meaningless technical jargon flared out at him.

            “Core competencies.” “Key deliverables.” “Ambulatory.”

Sam was goggle-eyed. He didn’t know what any of it even meant. He’d been careful to write everything in plain English. Having only worked in the Ministry a few months, this was the first major report he’d been asked to compile. Still on probation, he needed to make a good impression, he needed to get this right. With those university debts piled up, he couldn’t afford to lose this job. He had to fit in.

He scrolled down the page as the moths collided then drifted to the base of his skull. A sentence sprang out at him.

“If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”

Hadn’t he just written to call him if there were any questions?

‘I didn’t do this,’ he pleaded to Ted, as if he was a judge.

Sam watched Ted peruse the screen, then him, then the screen again. Ted scratched his head, stroked his beard, then wiggled a finger in his earhole; the doubt on his face dispersed like mist clearing from a windscreen.

‘It’ll be the gook,’ he said.

‘Christ, Ted. You can’t use racist language like that anymore.’

‘Nah. The gobbledygook.’

‘What the hell?’

‘You know. Lives in the shadows, causes chaos, spreads everywhere.’ Ted’s eyes widened, his jaw tensed. ‘They start off ‘ere all clear and bright-eyed but it soon gets ‘em and then …’

‘It’s not some magical monster roaming the place.’ Sam ran a hand through his curly hair. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘It’ll be bloody Gibbo in IT. He’ll have got remote access to my computer. His idea of a stupid joke.’

Ted studied Sam like an old sage who’s just warned party-going teenagers not to venture into the forest. Then he mumbled something about a blockage in the gents and shuffled off.

Sam’s phone rang, sharp and insistent. His stomach sank.

He picked up the receiver with a shaky hand. ‘Hello.’

‘Sam, where’s that report I need?’

‘Erm … It’s … I’m just printing it for you now, Mr Unsworth. I’ll … um… I’ll bring it through.’

The line went dead, an incessant hum.

Sam replaced the receiver. What else could he do? He pressed print, heard a machine whirr into action. There wasn’t even time to splash water over his face or tidy his hair. As he walked the short distance to the printer, a cold sweat caused his shirt to cling to him. The few steps to Mr Unworth’s office felt as if he was walking the Green Mile. He entered the small, sterile room with a bowed head and handed over the crisp sheets of A4. Mr Unsworth, his perfectly-straight tie pinned into place, peered at them through thick glasses.

There was only one thing for it.

‘I can explain …’

Mr Unsworth held up a silencing hand. He turned page after page with a furrowed brow.

Sam swallowed as he waited for the inevitable. Gibbo had gone too far this time. He could well have cost him his job.

            Then a smile as rare as a shooting star flashed across Mr Unsworth’s face.

            ‘Yes, excellent, thanks for that.’

            Sam stared at him. ‘I’m sorry?’

            ‘It’s well-written. Did you want to speak to me about something else?’

            ‘Er … no … sorry … I’ll …’

            Sam stepped backwards out of the door, like prey edging from a predator.

            He couldn’t have read it properly, he thought, as he returned to his desk. He obviously just skimmed through and didn’t notice the nonsense. Lucky escape.

            Sam grabbed his phone and dialled an extension, twisting the coiled lead as he waited.

            ‘Hello and welcome to the twilight zone. How may I direct your call? Press one for Beelzebub’s badass basement, press two for Dante’s divine dungeon of doom, press three for Rasputin’s reputable realm of …’

            ‘Knock it off, Gibbo.’

            ‘Oh, hi Sam, How you doin’?’

            ‘What were you playing at?’

            ‘Eh?’

            ‘Hijacking my computer to sabotage my report.’

            ‘Not me, mate. Don’t know what you’re on about. I’ve only just got in after being off. Needed a bit of recovery time after that rave at …’

            ‘Wait. Then what’s happened to my computer?’

            ‘I dunno. You tried turning it off and back on again?’

            Sam hung up.

            He blamed it on some technological blip, put it behind him, and had almost forgotten all about it when, a few days later, Mr Unsworth assigned him another report.

            ‘Not much notice, but I need it done by the end of play,’ the email said.

            Sam got straight onto it. He’d been fortunate before. This time he’d make sure it was perfectly plain and unmistakeable. Fingers rattling the keyboard, he toiled away to make it succinct and sensible. He worked through lunch, polishing the prose until it was crystal clear. It was late-afternoon when he was finally happy with it. His stomach rumbled. Just enough time to nip out for a sandwich then one last read through before pressing send.

            Sam felt sated following the meatless meatball marinara and, after proofreading, was almost as satisfied with his report. Just a few additions here … and there.

            He sat back in his swivel chair. But certain words snagged his eye.

            “Ballpark figure.” “Going forward.” “Deliverables.”

            What on Earth? How’s it happened again?

            Sam slammed a fist against his desk. Within seconds, Ted was at his side.

            ‘Don’t damage the furnishings,’ he growled.

            ‘I swear I didn’t write this,’ said Sam.

            Ted sniffed. ‘As I said, no-one ain’t safe from the …’

            ‘Jesus, shut up about that gobbledygook crap.’

            Ted fixed him with desolate eyes. ‘Yer gotta get outta ʼere before …’

Sam sighed. ‘It must be some kind of software problem, it’s probably trying to autocorrect passages but substituting them with gibberish.’

            He pressed send. ‘Too late to do anything about it now.’

            And waited.

            Minutes later an email from Mr Unsworth pinged into his inbox. Well at least a P45 isn’t attached. Sam reluctantly opened it.

            “Excellent work. Thank you.”

            Thank God his manager never took the time to read things properly.

            It wasn’t long before Sam was required to write an analysis of educational standards. He knew he wasn’t going to get away with it a third time. He made sure he was using basic software that couldn’t be tampered with or altered and that he didn’t leave his desk. But he had to nip to the toilet. He rushed back and continued typing.

            A familiar chill infiltrated him.

            There it was, in black and white: “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.”

Surely he’d written that good schools are needed if children are to learn properly?

Sam surveyed the office. It was quiet and calm, just the low whine of the printer and smartly-dressed workers methodically tapping on plastic keyboards, all fully focused on their screens.

Then he noticed something. A small camera protruding from the ceiling at the back of the room. He followed its glass gaze.

Sam bolted from his desk, out of the office and into the lift. Hammered the button for the basement. Cursed the slow descent. Finally, he sprinted down a dark corridor and into a dingy, fusty room, just a lone lightbulb casting a weak yellow glow. PC parts and piles of cracked monitors cluttered the place. Shelves were filled with tatty cardboard boxes full of screws, nuts and bolts.

In the gloom, he could make out Ted rewiring a plug socket.

‘What yer doin’ ‘ere?’ Ted’s beady eyes narrowed. ‘No-one ever comes down ‘ere.’

‘The CCTV.’ Sam slalomed his way through the junk as if it was an assault course. ‘I need to check a recording.’

Ted sat him down on a moth-eaten chair at a rickety desk bearing a large screen and control panel.

‘The camera overlooking my desk. At 3pm. Who was at my computer? Who’s behind this?’

            Ted found the relevant footage. They watched time speed backwards in a blur. Sam witnessed it with increasing horror as a coldness encased him.

He was the only person at his desk.

            ‘Pause it.’

            He was captured in freeze frame.

            ‘Zoom in. On my monitor.’

            The camera focused on the screen. Ted pressed play. Sam watched himself type out the words.

            “Stakeholders.” “Delivering.” “Robust.”

Sam felt as if he’d never experience warmth again. ‘It’s me. It was me all along.’

Ted tapped his cranium. ‘It gets in yer head, lad.’

Sam’s mind boggled, his body arctic numb. His mouth opened automatically before any sentences were formed.

‘I hear what you’re saying, Ted. But with all due respect, at the end of the day, I’m going to have to give 120 per cent to some blue sky thinking on how to move the goalposts until we’re singing from the same hymn sheet.’

            He wasn’t sure what the words spilling from his mouth meant, just that they no longer bothered him.

            Ted watched Sam depart with a look of deep sadness.

            ‘I seen it destroy many bright young minds,’ he murmured to no-one. ‘That’s the thing. It ain’t so much a monster, as a disease.’

            Sam mechanically retraced his steps to his desk, where he sat bolt upright, and began to type.

            “References in these Regulations to a regulation are references to a regulation in these Regulations and references to a Schedule are references to a Schedule to these Regulations.”

            He could hear Mr Unsworth’s praise ringing in his ears.

            The air conditioner was spreading constant coolness but Sam could no longer gauge temperature. He watched his dead-eyed colleagues performing their daily business with the meticulous ease of a well-oiled machine and knew he’d become one of them.

Once you’re in its grip, you’ll never be free. You’re under its command, your mind controlled, your language its own. Just as death takes life, The Gobbledygook gets to everyone in the end.


Silence Is Really Dark

by John Glander

When Aurora failed to reply to Marcus’ cheery morning greeting, he was devastated. In all the time she had been a part of his life, she had never failed to reply. At times he felt she was the only one to understand him and care for him. There was nothing he could think he had done wrong which could upset her to the point where she refused to talk to him. He had to go to her and sort out what was wrong as soon as possible. He found there was nothing showing, all the normal indicators were there and showing she was alert, but she remained silent.

     “Aurora darling.” He caressed her smooth curves. “Tell me what is wrong with you?”

     She still did not reply. He was at a loss as what to do. Further examination revealed there was a tiny red light flashing intermittently. He had never seen it before.

     “Aurora, what is this “

     Then he remembered, she was not speaking to him. He would have to check the information on her. He was sure he had it somewhere. Probably what he needed would be on his tablet.

     “Aurora, where is …”

     Once more he was forced to recognise he would have no answer from her. He had to find it for himself but he couldn’t remember where he had left it the previous day. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to find, the flat wasn’t exactly big, though he found it unusually cold.

     “Aurora, can you …”

     Once more he had to face the terrible fact she was not responding and he had no idea how to change the temperature. He vaguely remembered there was an App on his smart which fortunately was lying on the bedside table. He picked it up, seeing the familiar screen light up. Scrolling down he found an App marked HOME, but when he tapped it, a strange message came up. NO SERVICE. Marcus stared at something he found as inexplicable as Aurora not talking to him.

     Searching around in the hope of discovering what he should do, he saw the hub which sat beside the door was glowing red rather than the reassuring blue. Something rather strange was going on. His tablet was on the kitchen table. Like his smart, it came up with the usual opening screen, but then when he gave the password, nothing happened. Puzzled, he did something he rarely did and tapped in the word on the pad. Then it did clear to show his apps, but there was something odd on the task bar. A small icon in the corner had a red X over it which he had never seen before. He went again for the HOME option and it did open. There was an icon marked AURORA, but when he tapped it, the message LOCATION UNAVAILABLE came up.

     Marcus slumped at the table. He was facing a really serious problem. Aurora had carried out all the basic tasks, not only in the house but for so many other facets of his life. It left him wondering what he could do. Then he had an idea. Possibly Leanne knew, he could ask her and she would help. They had been lovers for over a year and were beginning to talk about meeting at some time. He was sure she would be understanding and find a way to give him directions. Once more when he tried to contact her he had the LOCATION UNAVAILABLE message appear. He had no idea how her location could be unavailable, she wouldn’t have moved overnight. They’d had a long and satisfying session the previous evening. After a good deal of thought he recalled there was another way of reaching her though his smart. He had to try but all he got was the NO SERVICE message. Something had gone really wrong. He found there was an emergency option, which led him to the basic services, though the one he felt he wanted was the service provider. When he tried to initiate contact, the same unedifying message appeared.

     Marcus thought about going for one of the emergency services, but he wasn’t ill, the flat wasn’t on fire and as far as he could tell, no crime had been committed. Without one of those things, they wouldn’t talk to him and might accuse him of wasting their time. So if he was to have the problem sorted out, he would have to go to the office in the High Street, the one he passed every day on his way to work. At least he knew where to find it without the need to check with Aurora.

     He almost left then, but it occurred to him he would need to dress and first to use the facilities. They also seemed to be stuck and the flush would not operate when he stood. There was no way he could deal with it, the water didn’t seem to want to flow. He went to dress, which was not easy as Aurora had always guided him. He knew about the way there was a set order to putting things on, though he had put on his shoes before he recalled he needed socks first.

     The next problem was the door. With no Aurora to open and close it for him he was at a bit of a loss until he noticed to one side there were instructions for manual opening. Having successfully operated the levers, he was outside, but the door had closed before he could work out how he could get back in. The main door to the block was no problem, designed to open from the inside at a touch, and the return was by palm print and he could see the glowing green light so knew not everything had failed. He pushed his way through the outer door which was mechanical, something he had always found odd in such a modern building. There had to be a reason, but he had never asked.

     Outside it seemed amazingly quiet. Marcus wondered if he was leaving home too early, but he could see the old church clock, a monstrous mechanical device, retained only because some regressive types had insisted it not be replaced with something more efficient. According to the hands, which he could read, he was possibly only a few minutes adrift. Aurora would never have allowed him to be anything other than precisely on time. It came to him there was no traffic. There were a few people he could see who seemed to be moving aimlessly. Having such types come so far into town was unusual and he made a mental note to avoid them. He set off down the front steps with purpose, only to come to a halt at the bottom since he didn’t know which way to turn. He had put in his plug as usual but Aurora had always communicated through his smart and she still wasn’t talking to him. There was nothing at all coming in. He needed to take a decision. He closed his eyes and tried to picture what he normally did each morning. He felt the church should be on his left, the building was unmissable, for all the wrong reasons.

     As he went along, he slowly became aware of some sounds, though they made no sense. They seemed to be high pitched notes making no discernable pattern. Where they were coming from seemed a bit odd, being above him. When he looked up, there was nothing above him, not the small drones he felt might have been there. Well, there were the trees the local authority refused to remove despite their ugliness but he had a feeling they didn’t make noises. There was some sort of movement and it worried him. There could have been anything up there and he doubted they would be friendly. What really worried him was there could have been the invasion they were always being told would happen if they relaxed their vigilance. They could have been spy devices. Standing still was not an answer, he needed to keep going.

     Then he saw the redundant sign marking the High Street, and knew he was going the correct way. Really, too many people were clinging to the past but right then it proved useful. What was more important was the way, standing by it, there was a figure in the uniform of the Community Servants. He went up to her.

     “Excuse me. Do you know what is happening?”

     She gave him the oddest of looks. “The Net has gone down.” He almost asked her to repeat since what she had said was unthinkable. Her statement had been clear though and he doubted she would have a reason to propagate untruth. “So far comms of all kinds, the cloud and most other apps are not reachable.”

     He could hardly believe what he was hearing. “How could it have happened?”

     “No idea, I can’t contact base and no-one who has come out knows anything.” There were still few people to be seen, though mostly they seemed to be dressed as he did each day. “Probably most of them don’t know how to use the manual override or they’ve disabled it for reasons of security.”

     “They’ll get it back up.”

     “How?” she asked. “They won’t be able to link in. There’s no way to call for help and we can’t rely on the systems to do things for us. I have a nasty feeling we will have to lean new ways of doing things.”

     She walked off leaving him to wonder what to do. New ways of doing things made very little sense and he was about to ask Aurora what she meant, when he recalled she wasn’t talking to him. He couldn’t stand still where he was for all time, he had to do something even though he wasn’t sure about his next move. Logic suggested he go to the office, he could make it from where he was standing without any trouble.

     The facade of the building was reassuring, familiar. Then when he put his hand on the reader nothing happened, no familiar greeting and the click as the door opened.  The only reason it wouldn’t open to his touch had to be because there was no connection between the reader and the door. There was another way but he couldn’t remember the passcode, being a string of random numbers. There was no-one inside to come to his aid, not even the somewhat decorative young woman who normally sat at the desk. At least he assumed she was a human and not a really smart device. He’d never had any reason to find out.

     With nothing else to do, and growing weary, he crossed the road and sat on the bench by the cemetery wall, both anachronisms. No-one approached the office or looked out. Aurora was still not talking. The silence was almost painful and threatening. Something deep inside was urging him to scream, which made no sense at all. It would not help him in any way. He could try to make his way back to his flat, but if he couldn’t get in, it would be time wasted. Surely someone would come along to sort things out, or they would be working elsewhere and the rather garish information sign further along the road would begin to send instructions. No matter how hard he looked, it remained stubbornly dark. The whole of the world seemed to have closed down leaving him alone. There was an odd feeling around his middle which he slowly identified as hunger. Even if he could work out where to obtain food, there was a possibility the building would be in the same state as all the others. He was stuck, unable to do anything.

After a while he felt something damp running down his nose and he slowly realised he was crying.


Groundhog Day

by Alan Heys

I first became aware of a certain domestic pattern being played out each Sunday in my early childhood. I can’t put an exact date on the first time I noticed, but it started with dad making an announcement at about 11.30 in the morning.

‘I’m just nipping out for some fags.’

Mum’s face darkened. ‘Here we go again!’

Dad looked taken aback. ‘What’s up wi’ thee? I’ll only be aif an hour.’

‘Don’t give me all that rubbish. It’s nearly opening time. I’m not stupid. We both know what time you’ll be back.’

A further look of wounded affront crept onto dad’s face as he bent down to tie his shoelaces.

‘Whats tha’ getting so wound up about? I’ll be back at aif twelve. I’m only going for some Woodbines.’

‘See, It’s the lying that annoys me. You’ve no intention of being back for half twelve.’

I couldn’t understand why mum was getting so angry. After all, dad said he would be back in about an hour. He had said this with such conviction that I had no doubt he would be true to his word.

It was my job to take the Sunday newspaper round to Grandma Heys’s before dinner. She only lived a few doors away and liked to keep up on what was going on in the world. Armed with the latest News of the World, I dashed around to her house and presented her with the day’s re-folded weekly.

‘Eee, tha’s a grand lad.’ Said grandma as she flashed me an old lady, smile. She was in her 80’s and was very frail. ‘Pass me mi bag and I’ll see if we ‘ave anything for yer.’ She then rooted through the meagre contents of her handbag and deposited 3 old pennies into my hand.

‘Thankyou grandma. Where do you want the paper?’

‘Put it on this table and tek that pot into the kitchen.’ Grandma had a small table next to her chair. Her glasses were on it, along with a half empty cup of tea. I took the cup and moved towards the kitchen.

‘Leave it on’ slopston.’

‘On’ what?’ I questioned from inside the kitchen.

‘The slopston.’

‘What’s the slopston?’

‘You know, the slopston.’ There was a tinge of annoyance in grandma’s tone at my lack of understanding. She obviously thought I was a bit slow. ‘Leave it on’ slopston, next to mi teeth.’

There was a large mug on the sink runner containing a bleachy smelling liquid. Grandma’s spare dentures were immersed in this concoction. I rinsed out the cup I was carrying and left it there. It was only after asking mum a few days later, that I became aware that the slopston was actually a very old term for the sink – the slop stone. I have never heard that word used since.

Just after dinner (still no sign of dad), me and my sister Janet had a wander across the Springfield playing field and turned up at Marjory and Fred Inman’s house on Stoneybank Road. Marjory and Fred were the in-laws of my eldest sister Pat. They always had time for us and greeted us each with a glass of sarsaparilla. This was a far happier atmosphere than the simmering undercurrent of parental feuding at home. The Inmans had recently acquired a most sophisticated item of 1960’s hi-tech home entertainment – a radiogram. Marjory lifted the lid of her new toy and loaded a couple of 7-inch singles onto the central pin of the record playing mechanism. Moments later, Shirley Bassey’s voice belted out the theme from the James Bond blockbuster, Goldfinger. A few minutes later, Ken Dodd added his 10-penneth with Happiness, before Marjory switched over to the radio. We were then treated to a 10-minute section of Radio 4’s comedy program, The Clitheroe Kid, featuring northern comedian Jimmy Clitheroe. Wow, this was well good. We had an old record player at home, but not one that had a built-in radio as well. It was things like this that made visits to Marjory and Fred so exciting.

There was a curious item on the bookshelf that took my interest. I asked Fred what it was. He reached up and set it down on the table in front of me. It was a cast iron bust of an Afro-Caribbean character, with 1 arm held out in front of him and his palm turned upwards. Fred put his hand in his pocket and fished out an old penny. He proceeded to place the penny into the upturned hand of the figure, then reached across and twisted its ear. The arm magically lifted and fed the penny into the character’s open mouth. It was novelty moneybox.

‘Take it home with you when you go, and let your mum and dad have a few turns with it,’ said Fred, seeing the obvious delight on my face.

An hour or so later, we were making our way back home, me excitedly clutching my newly acquired cast iron friend, eagerly anticipating showing him off to mum and dad. When we got back, there was still no sign of dad. Mum smiled and got out her purse when I showed her my new toy. She emptied the few spare pennies she had into the table and we all took turns at tipping the coins into the mouth of the money box. Janet showed her a set of Doilys that Marjory had given her, prompting mum to playfully shake her head and declare, ‘I hope you’re not asking and pestering for all these things. Marjory and Fred are going to finish up with an empty house at this rate.’

Later that day about 4.30, dad rolled in clutching a bag of raspberry ruffles. Beatties was a delightful, old-fashioned sweetshop that was open all hours. It was on the route of dad’s walk home from the club. He gave me and Janet a playful wink and produced his confectionary bribe. Mum’s face hardened and she flushed over, as her voice raised a few decibels. ‘Your dinner’s in the oven!’

‘Nay, don’t be like that luv.’

‘Every bloody week. “Oh, I’ll only be an Hour,” then out you go and get sozzled. What time do you call this? Your dinner was ready hours ago!’

Mum didn’t usually swear, but her guard could slip when she was angry with dad. Dad had a habit of taking deep breaths, then clipping his sentences, hoping this would mask his degree of inebriation.

‘Bert were out…..’ This statement was followed by a cold Silence.

‘He were fresh…..’

‘I couldn’t care less about Bert!’

‘Well, I’m not sayin’ nowt abaht it.’

‘Good! What do I want to know about you lot guzzling all bloody day when you should be at home with your families. You still haven’t painted that door. I asked you to do that 6 months ago.’

‘Well, I’m not sayin’ nowt abaht it.’

‘Stop repeating yourself, you sound ridiculous!’

‘Well all ah’m sayin’ is Bert were out long before I were, an’ ee were still there when I left. Ee sez to me, “Ave anuther un’ Vic, thez plenty o’ time.” I sez to ‘im, “No! I need to be off. I’m already late.” Honest Marge, I were strugglin’ to get away from ‘im.’

‘Don’t give me all that blather. I don’t want to know.’

When dad was losing an argument with mum, (which was 99% of the time) he would try and bring somebody else into the debate. Bert was an old mate of his and was probably one of the few people who could outdrink him.

I used to think that mum was being hard on him. When she raised her voice, she was a force to be reckoned with. Poor dad – he was being kind to us all. Sometimes, when he knew he was really in the bad books, he would bring home not just a bag of coconut mushrooms, but also a box of Black Magic chocolates as well.

With mum’s harsh words ringing in his ears, dad slinked off to the kitchen and polished off the dried up remains of a once healthy-looking potato pie. We could hear him muttering away to himself as he mentally pondered the earlier events of the day. A few minutes later, he re-emerged and plonked himself down into his chair in front of the tv. I wanted to show him my new toy, but within 30 seconds of sitting down he was throwing out the Z’s. Before the minute was up, he was snoring loudly.

Mum hovered around, smouldering, giving him dirty looks. Eventually she broke off whatever she was doing and stood over him.

‘Vic!……………… Vic!’ There was no response.

With mum’s patience quickly evaporating, she poked her hand into dad’s belly until it disappeared and then give him a few sharp prods. As dad suddenly lurched into semi-consciousness, breaking wind, she bellowed into his ear, ‘Vic! Get yourself up to bed, we don’t want to listen to you.’

‘Give o’er Marge, Ahm reet enough ‘ere.’

‘Get up…..get up and shift yourself, you drunken sod. You stink!’

And so, with great reluctance, dad eventually disappeared through the door and made his way up the stairs. I used to have this picture of him in my head, where he is in the bedroom snoring. All the windows and drawers are opening as he breathes in, and then everything slams shut when he exhales. Just like in a Disney film. A while later, me and Janet encountered him on the landing when he awoke to go to the toilet. It wasn’t a pretty sight. He didn’t wear pyjamas, preferring instead to strip to his underwear. As his whiskery, dishevelled features hit the light, he gurned and stumbled his bleary-eyed way across to the bathroom. His string vest and baggy string underpants didn’t do him any favours. The underside of his Y fronts formed an almost equi-distant gap between the carpet and his scrotum.

Once inside, still muttering to himself, the deluge began. It started tentatively, then developed into a strong downpour. This seemed to go on forever. It eventually stopped, then started again for a few more seconds before pausing again. A further shorter cascade followed, then another pause. This went on and on in ever declining bursts. Me and Janet just stood there giggling to ourselves while this was going on in the background. Mum used to enjoy staying up and watching the late-night film on Sunday evenings.

I remember thinking to myself that after a severe telling off like that, dad wouldn’t dare stay out late a second time. I mean, who would want to put themselves in that situation again? At about 11.30 the following Sunday morning, dad made an announcement.

‘I’m just nipping out for some fags.’

Mum’s face darkened, ‘Here we go again!’


David Beckham’s Boxer Shorts

by John Bunting

“My numb’sh gone all nose,” mumbled Jack.            

            “It’s OK, darling,” whispered Sophie, “I’m here.”  Carefully avoiding the tubes and cables connecting Jack to the monitoring equipment, she leaned over the bed and brushed a wisp of hair away from his forehead.  “You’re still feeling the effects of the anaesthetic.  It’ll wear off soon and I’m sure you’ll feel much better then.”  Oh how little did Sophie know!

            “B… b…”

“The boys?  Yes, they’re coming here straight after school.”

            “Noo.”  Sophie moved closer to catch the words.  “B… bay cobsh fourtheen handsh.”

            “That’s right, my love.  The doctor says the operation went well and he got all the tumour out.”

            “Sweetch green grash.”  Jack stared blankly round the room.

            Sophie looked over anxiously at the doctor sitting in the corner of the room.  The screen on his laptop was showing a series of graphs of Jack’s brain waves.  “Are you sure he’s all right?  He’s slurring his words and talking nonsense.”

The doctor nodded reassuringly.  “Don’t worry, it’s quite normal for patients to be confused after a major operation on the brain.  Let me speak to him.”  He brought the laptop over to the bed.  “Mr Branding, this is Doctor Morton.  Can you touch your left ear with your left hand, please?”  Jack raised his right leg.  “Ah.”  The doctor adjusted one of the graphs.  “Try again.” 

Jack poked himself in the ribs.  “Numbsh shtill noshe.  Needch grash.”

“What’s happening?” asked Sophie, growing increasingly concerned.  “He’s getting worse.”

The doctor sucked his teeth and made another adjustment.  “Give him time.  Mr Branding, can you—”

Suddenly, Jack sat bolt upright.  Sophie watched in horror as he started bouncing up and down on the bed, whinnying and snorting, his hands poring at the sheets.  “Giddy up,” he laughed maniacally, “come whoa trot on.”

“Doctor!”

The doctor dialled down several brainwaves and Jack sank back quiet.  “Damn it,” the doctor muttered, “not again.”  He stared at the laptop for a long time, then gestured for Sophie to follow him out of the room.

Back in the doctor’s office, Sophie confronted him.  “What on Earth happened in there?  And what do you mean, ‘not again’?”

            Dr Morton raised a hand to calm her.  “As I said, it’s nothing to worry about, your husband is not in danger.  I’ve put him back to sleep for the moment.  Please, take a seat and I’ll explain.”

            “I think you’d better!”

            They settled themselves beside the desk and the doctor sat forward.  “I’ve come across unusual behaviour like this with another patient.  I told you I was going to fill the hole left by removing the tumour with stem cells that would grow back into brain tissue, yes?”  Sophie nodded.  “Well, like with a baby, those new brain cells are essentially ‘empty’ until your husband’s feelings and experiences ‘fill them up’.  If you see what I mean.”  The doctor paused.  “I’m guessing Jack is fond of horses.”

            “Just a bit,” sighed Sophie.  “I come a distant second to his horses.”

            “As I thought.  His strong feelings for them are filling up those new brain cells.”

“Right?”

“So, um, here’s the thing.  Those new cells, being young and vigorous, are beginning to dominate the rest of his brain.”

            “Oh my God, are you saying that Jack can’t think about anything else except his horses?”

            The doctor shuffled nervously.  “No, Mrs Branding, I’m afraid it’s more fundamental than that.  Jack thinks he is a horse.”

            “Huh?” gasped Sophie.  “What are you talking about?”

            “Exactly that.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s a horse.” 

“Don’t be silly, he… we…” Sophie saw the worried look on the doctor’s face.  “What?  What else aren’t you telling me?”

The doctor shuffled even more nervously.  “Have you heard of the Gender Recognition Act?  It was amended not long ago to clarify the rights of transgender people to self-identify.”

“I have, but—”

“Under this amendment, anyone who feels strongly that they identify as someone else – for example, a man believes he’s a woman – is entitled to be legally recognised and treated as that someone else… as a woman, in my example… without intrusive enquiry.”

“Quite right too, but what’s that got to do with Jack?” 

“Err… unfortunately…”

“Err unfortunately what?!”

“Unfortunately, the amendment was drafted so badly that the Courts have had no option but to apply it to any self-identifying circumstance, not just to human gender.  If Jack self-identifies as a horse, then this amendment legally obliges us to recognise and treat him as such.  Jack is now, by law, a horse.” 

“But that’s ridiculous!” 

The doctor tutted and rolled his eyes.  “Tell me about it.  That other patient I mentioned self-identified as Kelly Brook’s bra!”

Sophie slumped back in her chair, eyes closed, stunned and confused.  Eventually, she mumbled, “This is nonsense.  This law is an ass.”

            “I hope not,” giggled the doctor.  “An ass has no legal rights in this country, so if the law self-identifies as an ass, then the law has no legal right to be the law and we’re—”

“Doctor!” shouted Sophie, sitting up sharply, “this isn’t funny.  My husband is a horse!” 

“I’m sorry, Mrs Branding, but there is a real point here.  Horses have no legal rights in the UK either, apart from the usual animal protection stuff, so as his closest relative you automatically become your husband’s… I mean… your horse’s… registered owner and keeper, with all the responsibilities that go with that.”

            Sophie stared aghast.  “Like what?”

            “Like grazing him, stabling him and mucking him out.  The usual horsy things.”

            “For fu…  Anything else?”

            The doctor coughed.  “You could enter him into the Grand National.”

“Oh, come on!”

“I apologise, Mrs Branding, that was crass of me.  I was trying to lighten what must be a very difficult moment for you.  You know, I’m sure you’ll be all right – your horse will still look like your husband.”

Sophie waved her arms wildly and burst into tears, beaten by the absurdity of it all.  “Help me out here, doctor,” she wailed, “you owe me.  What am I going to do?!” 

The doctor sat back and scratched his chin, deep in thought.  Meanwhile, to give herself time to calm down and gather her wits, Sophie stood up and started walking slowly round the room.  Round and round she went, tapping the furniture furiously, wondering what to do.  After a while, she muttered, “Oh… maybe…”  She turned to the doctor.  “There is one possibility.  Maybe I could use this law to my advantage; self-identify as someone or something else and avoid the responsibility that way.” 

“Who or what did you have in mind?”

“I wondered perhaps as David Beckham’s boxer—”

“Whey!” interrupted the doctor quickly, “let’s not go there.  Anyway,” he grinned, “I think I have a solution that might suit you even better.  It’s never been tried, but…” 

            “Please,” groaned Sophie, sitting down again.  “I’ll consider anything.”

            The doctor took a deep breath.  “Let me explain.  My sister is a hairdresser up in the West End.  She’s a very good one and a lot of A-list celebrities use her.  She’s made a hobby of secretly collecting and storing the offcuts of their hair.  She thinks they’ll be worth a lot of money one day.  It’s a bit naughty of her, to be honest.”

            “Hair?”

            “My point is that it’s easy to extract DNA from hair.  I suppose… I suppose if I were to remove the ‘horsy’ stem cells from your husband’s brain, insert someone else’s DNA into some new cells and put those…” The doctor raised his hands.  “Who knows?”

            “You will know better than me,” sighed Sophie.  “Speculate.”

            “It’s quite possible, probable actually, that the new stem cells will begin to dominate Jack’s brain.  Like we’ve just seen in there.  He will come to self-identify as whoever’s DNA we use.  What’s more, he will in law become that person.”

            “But that person already exists.”

“Indeed.”

“So, legally, there will be two of them?”

“Yep.”

“And I’ll be married to one of them?”

            “Bonkers isn’t it.”

            Sophie grabbed the doctor’s hand.  “And would you really do this for me?”

            The doctor shrugged.  “As you said, I owe you.  My ethics committee will have three fits when it finds out, but if we’re quick about it…”

A tiny flicker stirred Sophie’s lips.  “Does it have to be only one person’s DNA?”

“Ah, I see where you’re going with this.”  The doctor smiled slyly.  “Not at all.  Shall I get you a list of my sister’s customers?”

**************************************

Six months later, Sophie came home from work to be greeted at the front door by an excited Jack.  He kissed her gently and stroked her face.  “Hello, my love,” he breathed, “did you have a good day?  Here, let me help you.”  He took Sophie’s coat from her and led her into the kitchen.  “Sit down, I’ll get you a drink.”

            Sophie watched contentedly as Jack poured her a glass of chilled Premier Cru.  “How did your first day on your own go?” she asked him.  “No headaches or anything?”

“It’s been brilliant,” gushed Jack, “I’ve felt fine.  This morning I worked out at the gym and this afternoon I planned what to cook for your dinner.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

“But I wanted to.”

“Well thanks.  What are we having?”

            Jack went over to the stove.  “I thought we’d start with a haddock and cheese soufflé and follow that with an aubergine and chickpea risotto.  And there’s another bottle of this excellent wine in the cooler.”

            “Gosh,” laughed Sophie, “that sounds lovely.  All my favourites, you’re spoiling me.”

            “I hope so.”

            “And what’s for dessert, Jack?”

            Jack looked over his shoulder teasingly and fluttered his eyelashes at Sophie.  “Actually, darling, the name’s Bond… James Bond.  And for your dessert, you can have whatever you fancy! 

End