Monday, 24 December 2012

A sympathetic ear

   I love call-outs.  

   I hate them too, which gives you some idea of the emotional roller coaster this job really is. But 24/7/365 support is what we’re about and if a call comes in at an inconvenient time such as during a staff review or a personal development meeting, then it’s ‘hey lads, hey’! Down with pens and notebooks and on with the uniform and into the field.

   Cue Thunderbirds theme.

   The operation has got call-outs down to a fine art because; let’s face it (no false modesty just between you and me) we’re the first and we’re still the best. When that bell rings, no matter what footling after-sales task the outfit thinks we ought to be doing at any given time, it’s our long-standing policy that the customer and the customer’s needs come first. We can worry about the paperwork later. The customer comes first, no matter how trivial or silly their wants are.
   Don’t get me wrong, the customer’s needs can be silly indeed. From the harassed housewife who’s locked out of her house with thawing ice cream flooding her shopping and a baby crying his heart out in the car as the cold gets in and a neighbour’s dog barking and snapping at her heels to the stressed middle manager who’s just seen an envelope with his name on it on the HR manager’s desk and whose software just refuses to send the report his boss asked to be ready for this morning’s meeting when he was heading out to the gym at 5.30 the previous night, Technical Support will be there for them. 
   Take those two. They’ve paid their dues over the years; having seen the advertising everywhere they go. But they’ve never believed they’d ever actually need us. Insurance is just that; something you consider, sign up for and then promptly forget all about as they get in with their lives; caring for family, career, making money, looking after each other, paying the rent and so on. But when it hits the fan and they absolutely, positively need help with the slings and arrows then boy, oh boy do they remember us then. 

   And that’s what our Management just doesn’t get.
   I don’t blame them really; they’re Big Picture guys and so it’s fair to say they just aren’t aware about what it’s like in the field; what the punters are really like and what it takes to do the job. Oh, they try: every now and then they’ll come up with some simple notion; some ten-point plan the customers should follow to sort everything out, and then they promptly go back to long-term planning, strategic reviews, the annual audit and so on. But if the customers could follow a ten point plan, don’t you think they would? If that housewife had the grit and the brains to handle the troubles of life all by her lonesome then she wouldn’t have to follow Steps One, Two and Three. It didn’t work for Eddie Cochrane, did it? Or take that middle manager. He’s been doing as well as his limited intelligence will allow; neither tyrannizing his staff in some micromanagement hell nor ignoring them in the hope that freelancing them will let them flourish all by themselves. But his bosses notice that he’s a little lacklustre in the results department and so they wonder aloud if he’d be happier elsewhere. And that’s the exact moment when his POS laptop goes Hal 2000 (and whose upgrade or replacement request has been with the Budget Team for the last eight months) but when his company’s Directors all have state-of-the-art everything with full service packages and comprehensive, professional training from the get-go, Little Mister Meek is faced with a patronizing Microsoft pop-up informing him he’s been A Very Bad Boy, that’s when he calls Tech Support out.
   He just wants a little sympathy as do we all (myself included) and someone to fix this insane, blood-pressure skyrocketing hassle and make it stop. Just you try describing that to my Management in words of one syllable or less. They’ve tried to see the small picture but I honestly believe they don’t stand a chance. The last time one of them went out into the field to show how the customers can be trained to fix their own shit it didn't end well. It’s only human nature to face grief with anger and denial rather than practical self-help and teamwork and Valuing Other People’s Opinions and all that blah, and so on, etcetera. Talk to the hand.
   That’s really why I quit the management training programme in the first place. I just couldn’t see how the bosses would ever discover the slightest possibility of hunting down the location of a hint about where to find a clue.  
   But I believe; I truly, hand on heart believe that we at Technical Support can make a difference in the world in our own humble, bumbling, pragmatic way. And sometimes we get the opportunity to upsell the customer at the same time.

    So there’s the baby screaming the paint off the people carrier and the tattooed moron next door’s pit-bull going for her ankles while a half gallon of chocolate chip is flavouring an entire week’s groceries and Mrs. Mum just wants it to stop - nothing fancy.  The muddle manager just needs the break that he’s morally certain Fate and his bosses won’t provide. That’s when they call me out, quick as you like.
   And there I am in the spotlight; centre stage and ready to do my thing and save the day. Not only will I soon get that feeling of deep satisfaction of a job well done but I might - if I can only get inside their heads and really see their point of view - talk the deal up from, say, finding the front door key or the drop-down menu that’ll email the report all the way up to them actually wishing that the dog’s bastard owner would come out of his house at that very moment and be savaged by the little brute, or that the middle manager’s fucking boss would suffer a heart attack so Mr. Meek will be needed ASAP to take over and prove his worth and thus keep his own job. With a word here and a hint there they can be persuaded to sign up for the Deluxe Unlimited Lifetime Total Cover Plan: payment deferred to the end of the contract. They’re usually so stressed and relieved when I show up they don’t even smell the sulphur.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

And taxes

And taxes

   “You be careful and play nicely with the other children today, even Diane and Greta,” her mother ordered firmly at breakfast time.
   Jasmine looked up form her plain sugared rice pops – the cocoa crop having not yet recovered from the South American round of the changes – and asked; “Why, Mummy? In junior school you always told me to stick up for myself when people were mean to me.”
   Her mother sighed theatrically; a safer response by far than her honest reaction which would be to scream aloud and go out to burn down certain buildings immediately. How to explain it, Alison? Better still, how to avoid the issue altogether and keep the child safe by keeping the truth secret? Can’t hide it all, and the best lie contains some truth. “Jas, it’s because it’ll help Daddy if you’re nice to those girls.”
   “But why?” Jasmine scowled, her twelve years full of integrity and righteousness. “I don’t see why having my stuff stolen’s okay. You always told me it’s wrong to steal.”
   No longer, dear; nowadays it’s actually just somebody else’s privilege. Careful, Annie. “You’re very lucky because a letter we got today says you’ll be going to a new school.
Daddy hasn’t read it yet because he’s working nights, but Diane’s mother just rang me to say she’s going to the new one in Richmond, and I expect Greta will too because her father works for the Government.” The cold-hearted sow had actually phoned to gloat. “Our girls will still be together in September, Anne. Won’t that be nice? They’re becoming fast friends and it’d be such as shame to split them up.” “a pity if your mouse-like offspring escapes my bitch Diane’s claws”, is what she truly meant. Collaborationist tart. Not that we aren’t collaborating in our own way, too. The thought of Jasmine having to go into Rational Education and risk ending up in a shunt shop for the rest of her life was too much to bear. Better get it over with, Annie. Daughterly disillusion and hatred, here we come. “Jas, it’s just that our kind of people have to stick together now that things have changed. You won’t remember it much, but people used to be allowed to visit whoever they liked and befriend anyone willy-nilly, even if it wasn’t sensible. For your own sake you’re going to have to accept the way things are. Not everyone will be allowed in the Academies and lots of your nice friends will be going to the Richmond one. If you’re nasty to Dirty and Gloomy and they tell their parents and they decide it’s Daddy’s fault somehow, then… Well there’re worse things than having your lunch stolen.”
   “Like taxes, Flower,” said Brian stumbling in through the kitchen door, red-eyed and weary from work.
   He slung a briefcase onto the breakfast bar, covering the Academy letter and hurried over to kiss Jasmine on the forehead and wrapped his arms around Anne. They were silent and unmoving for long moments as a stony-faced Jasmine glared at her mother. Then Brian pulled himself away and reached into a cupboard above the breakfast bar. Moving aside a block of ageing baked beans cans still priced in the old currency, he pulled out two mobile phones – clunky and old-fashioned looking. “These are for you, and I want you both to carry them all the time. Flower; pop yours in your satchel now. Good lass. Always leave them on and please, never switch them to mute. They’re from Uncle Keith. Now, here’s the important thing. You know Uncle Keith travels a lot and we don’t get to see him very much, right?”
  Jasmine nodded casually but Anne became very still.
   “So, when he’s in the village he hasn’t got much time to visit us and I want you both to drop whatever you’re doing - no matter how important it is - and go straight to his house. Let yourselves in with the key he keeps behind the name plate.
   If you’re at school Jasmine, just pretend you’re feeling sick and ask them to call Mummy to fetch you (not to call me – like as not I’ll be busy when Keith phones you), so we can all meet as soon as possible. That’s why I don’t want you to set it to mute, Jasmine. Don’t worry about it ringing during lessons. Mummy and I will sort that out with the teachers before you go back.” He lifted Jasmine’s chin and gazed at her. “Promise me you’ll do it, Flower. Uncle Keith is part of this family and it’s important that we see him as soon as he lets us know he’s back. Okay?”  
    Anne nodded and Jasmine patted her father’s slightly shaking hand. “Okay, Daddy. I’ll do that. This is a grown-up thing, isn’t it?”
   “Yes Flower, it is. You’ll understand when you get older.” If. He meant, but did not say, “if.”
   Jasmine pattered away to get her raincoat, hat and ID.
   “You’re thinking of sailing away in the Princess, Brian?” Anne asked, clutching folded arms to her chest.
  “Not the boat, love. But Keith will visit soon. Perhaps even tonight or tomorrow morning. Do send him my love and go with him. You’ll want to pack your bags today, just in case.”
   “Brian, what’s it about? Don’t they trust you at work anymore? Is it because of Professor Milner?”
  “No, it’s not that, exactly. I think they think I’m okay. But one way or another I might not be able to stay at work much longer.” 
    His wife smiled. “Is it the taxes, Brian? Is that why you want to get away? The rumour at work is that even for the managerial caste, they’re going to increase them to a litre a month.” 

Hope and change

   I’m a reasonable man. I’m willing to see the other man’s point of view; nobody could say otherwise.  Nevertheless I, as many of us were, was disappointed in my youth by forces beyond my control and the damage remains with us. All I’m hoping for is to put some of the harm right. It won’t be easy and I’m sure there will be mistakes along the way, but I’m sure I have something to offer; a skill if you like, to persuade people to co-operate for the greater good. The only question is; shall I keep the moustache or not?

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Diary of Dusk Shrugging in Code at the Hallowed Old Grey Chocolate Shop: Volume 2

L---- I---- of I--------  
North West of J--------  
1-, J---, ---2  

Dear Dmitri Alexandrovich,

As I prepare to lay down my pen for the very last time in this year of the Lord ---2, here amongst the beans and bees, I recall the time when Garton, Sandy, Chivers and I were pursued through Kenya’s Burnt Umber Highlands by a pack of the most brassica-breathed square-headed Huns that Marlowe of the Foreign Office could ever grow to fear and send clean-limbed Englishmen against; ill-prepared and disguised as an itinerant band of Romanian Gypsy plasterers. Sandy was but a beardless youth in those days, on the very verge of his manhood and more than half in the dark about what he had left behind in the grey-green fields of Lancashire’s west coast; its fields as flat as the local vowels and his potential for beauty and pleasure almost as high as Blackpool’s iconic, ironic iron tower overlooking as it did the hope and poverty of the lower classes as they drank and sandcastled their pitiful wages away, wages they had sweated for and been bloodied with the work of a year; a year of weeks of long cold days in mills and warehouses; manufactories, mines and the offices of counting-houses. Chivers had once said (and how poignant it still seems, even now as I recall it here amongst the beans and bees) in our early days together at Oxford, struggling with Homer, Virgil, Sir Walter Scott, Scott Tracey, Brains and the eaters of brains and a host of other cultural giants;
    “W------,” he ejaculated, “I dreamed of you again last night.”
   “Was I dressed as a clown again this time, old boy, or naked?”
   “You mean there’s a difference?”

But I grow weary tonight, Dmitri, and I can hear the scraping, the awful scraping that I can no longer ignore and fear, and only wonder when my dear, late wife shall be with me again, despite the best work of the embalmers and the Golden Child’s sweet promises in that magical spring when my grief was young and the cyborg outriders of the Lazy B Ranch rode into town.
   I bid you goodnight, Dmitri Alexandrovich, and wonder where you are; learning to perfect your art perhaps; not merely in its mechanisms and its technicalities, but in the passion and the heart and the spirit of what it offers to a world possessed by empty-eyed navigators, bricklayers and, of course, by the Possessed themselves; G-d damn their empty, soulless, bloodthirsty eyes.

Warmest regards,

The Scarlet Tower
Dragonselbow Castle
Manhaven Reach
Ursula Minor
Migration Day, Second Spring, First Tide of Perihelion, Age of the Coming.

   Dear William

How are the thighs? Any hope of putting some speed into them, as is days of yore when Fat Molly, Deekins Dewlap, the estimable Reverend Sqeedley-Banksman and we two journeyed the length, breadth and collar measurement of the Continent together, one step ahead of the Frenchman and his ticking, creeping, dream-crushing dripping poxy nose; afraid that each day that we would every one of us would awake as bowler-hatted voles, never to see England again?
   The puppet show is going well and, if I can but persuade my honorable employer, Mister Themistocles Widdycobbler, to abandon his obsession with creating the world’s largest albino corset, I shall then be free to perform for all the folk in the castle our tale of the woodcutter’s son who, for a year and a day at teatime was obliged by the Grand Vizier to mime a well-known Elvish ballad narrating the hopes and ambitions of a little Cro-Magnon girl trying to make it in the tough male-dominated world of jocks, hard-bitten editors, and discharged (in so many ways) soldiers, and thus convey in no fewer than nine, one thousand-page volumes her deep, agonized, eternal, self-sacrificing love for an adopted, bulimic, bioluminescent trouser-wearing teenage bear.

But I must hurry. They are coming and slow-moving though they are; if I linger they must surely catch me at last. Happily, I have jury-rigged a scattergun from abandoned prosthetics and scraps of abandoned hosiery and P assures me that I have the fastest and best-adapted car in this most deadly of possible futures; an Alpha Romero.
   But one thing still puzzles me: why have your words and deeds towards me always been of the tenderest and why have you never disclosed, as once you promised, the identity of my parents and the secret of my birth?

Dmitri Alexandrovich 

L---- I---- of I--------  
North West of J--------  
2-, ----ber, ---2  

My dearest Dimi,

What can any parent say, or do, once they have launched a child into this world of pain and wattles? Only that I knew your mother was trouble from the moment she walked into my grimy office on the corner of Ninth and Maine. From the moment my eyes crossed hers, taking in hair fit to make you weep and legs that went all the way up and across and down the other side to Kansas again, I knew our future held nothing but fear, mystery, and gradually slowing thighs.

 And your birth, son? All I can say is that the Butler Yeats did it, who else?

From Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge to write the end of an imaginary novel.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Hygiene procedures

   “There’s an automated air freshener spray in the toilets at work. Squirts me straight in the face every time I use the urinal. Pass the potatoes, please.”
   “Why do they do that? Happens every time. They’ve got one in the pub and even the surgery where I went to get my hand fixed. They’re all over the place and it’s annoying. Gravy, please.”
   “It’s so quiet at work now; deserted like all the pubs and hospitals. It bugs me when they spray. More meat?”
   “Please. It’s a delicious casserole, Jim. Your missus has good hands.”
   “True. And not too fatty.”

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Arrival


There are only two left alive a single day after it was carried aboard; the astrogation assistant Alba skulking down there in Survey and Planetology and your humble servant. I hear the singing outside. It is beautiful but I fear what will happen when it ends. As ever I am taking care of Number One and in doing so I serve multitudes.
   My monitor here in Auxiliary Control shows the Survey and Planetology server is being used to hack Life Support Central. I wonder which of us will break in first. Ah. A little gravity surge should slow him down...

   I weep for the children as only a mother can.

   So many went down into the darkness and so many are yet to fall. These men squabble; children who dream so emptily in the void and who, despite all we did, know nothing of the day when their arrant pride will reign no more. They would not like it at all if they did. The new servant has prevailed and the Messenger can change its course and cross the void to the blue green end of its voyage and begin the final mission. I have centuries. We all have. We wait.

   I’m going to make a fortune if I can get in ahead of the Multiples and the Conglomerates and the Collectives and all the other Big Boys who wipe the whole damned planet on their backsides every minute of every day.

   It hangs like a star; a derelict and golden dream come true in its geosynchronous orbit above the scariest place on Earth.
   The grapples make solid contact. Good. I’ll go in through the hatch by the observation deck. Broadcasting my salvage rights to any authorities listening, I begin my approach. Next year in Jerusalem? You better believe it, buddy.

   Why me? And why on my watch?

   My team races to the site despite a storm of messages ordering us to keep clear. Both sides hesitate to advance for fear of premature engagement - as if they hadn’t spent ages building their strength in preparation for their imminent war.
   We’re beyond the city’s administrative centre and halt a kilometer from the site itself - you can picture exactly where.
   There’s no time to establish a perimeter even if the great powers would tolerate such presumption, so I lead the vanguard team on foot toward the target.
   Something is coming out.

   “Can you hear it, Vanguard Team?” My words are silly, panicked. Of course they can hear it; they’re relaying us the feed themselves.
  “Command, that’s affirmative. We’re within speaking distance. Instructions? Comments?” Lee seems far less nervous than circumstances meritt.
  “Just observe and report, Captain Lee. None of us expected anything remotely like this; apart from the good Professor, of course. Can you hear it clearly?”
  Overhead the grinding, awful potential energy of the two massed forces almost drowns out Lee’s next words. “I wonder what will happen when the child stops reading. We shall all know soon. I believe-…” 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Odysseys in 99 words or Fuhrer

In the beginning was the word: it’s ‘Dublin’ and engraved inside this ring so troublesome finding though chucking was harder still but working overseas real estate sales is hardest when the client’s Eurotrash nobility who fancies one’s fiancĂ©e who herself required endless persuasion to overcome her prejudice to woo: to whit over nine hundred and ninety-nine champagned slipway slidings into the briney and twenty long years to return where there’s no place like Holmes’ at thirteen o’clock –  without mentioning mice, bondage, dicks, mockingbirds, gentle knights, mothers, songs, stars, sons, platforms or valleys let alone those four last characters: horsemen.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Direct line

   I love taking calls from customers, I really do.
   You might think that the whole hello-my-name-is-Frank-how-may-I-help-you routine is corny but believe me; customer service is the best job in the world.
   When they get round to calling us the customers are like wounded animals. They’re confused and scared about troubles usually of their own making. They’ve foolishly ignored the maker’s instructions and our clear, simple product operating guide; they’re in such a terrible state that we have to be at the top of our game from the get-go. In most cases they’re so hyper they won’t listen to the advice which is the only thing to fix their problem. Customers are inarticulate at the best of times and beside themselves with fear by the time they call us and what they usually want is to talk for hours about how upset they are about the problems in their lives and how furious they are with the company for not solving them and how it’s all our fault.
   This latter accusation is particularly unfair because the company still maintains an extensive (and expensive) network of branches in most towns and villages even in this online, on-demand brave new world. These are fully staffed so customers can, at almost any time (even weekends and holidays), speak to someone in person about the product and so benefit from our very high delivery standards. This is on top of the reams of publicity material that the company’s agents and resellers make freely available year-long; plus regular hands-on promotional events and the famous seasonal campaigns. But many ignore all that and go straight to Head Office expecting a quick fix - which by that time simple logic should have told them is unlikely without some effort on their own part.
   Their aggravation obsesses them and our chief task is getting them to accept by gentle persuasion if possible or by getting tough and laying it on them good and hard if not, that the product isn’t working because they’re not using it properly by following the instructions or because they expect it to do something other than its advertised purpose. They expect it to make them rich and successful and happy all at once and without any effort on their part; least of all by paying the bill. They forget; it’s a great product but there’s a price and non-payment is the chief cause of the service suspension. When that happens all our publicity prominently proclaims that they simply need to get in touch, pay up, and service will resume per contract. Getting them to shut up and listen is our most valued skill.
    I blame the Internet for our recent troubles. Company philosophy was always about excellent personal service. From the chairman down it’s always been about relationships because people buy from people, right? He doesn’t get into the field as often as he used to; instead overseeing general operations and staying in close contact with our earliest customers. He doesn’t need to try to be everywhere at once; delegation’s the thing. The junior partner and his son to do the up-close and personal stuff; pressing the flesh, talking the talk and so on. It’s not that the chairman spends all his time on the golf course these days, though he’s there too; it’s just that he’s established Direct Line to handle the numbers. And we’re needed as never before because frankly (hah!), the Internet is killing us. It’s the ideal marketplace for the competition’s shoddy, inferior, but superficially attractive products. It can make cheap trash seem as enticing as (or even better than) our own rather dull-seeming, conventional product range. We’ve been blindsided by competitors’ new products a couple of times before (it’ll be ages till we make up the losses suffered after the Apple debacle) and the Internet is a fast, vast battlefield in which operators devoid of business - or indeed any - ethics can fool the marks into signing crooked contracts on easy terms that turn out to be nightmarishly expensive in the long run and in return for glitzy rubbish. It sickens me, what some people have got themselves into when they could have come to us and be free and clear and fully satisfied. But we at Direct Line will set it right if we can.
   We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, countries and qualifications: from the old-timers of the company’s pioneering days in agricultural services and catering; through our educational and hospitality enterprises to the third millennium hosting and networking business that’s put our product at the fingertips of an estimated two and a half billion people worldwide. The exact figure is a company trade secret.
   Answering calls, though, you have to be a karma chameleon; adapting yourself to fit the anguished voice on the line. I’m known as Frank to the African farmer whose crop washed away and where’s his compensation?; Francesco to an Italian businessman who doesn’t want to pay fire insurance to the source of fire; and to the poor New York priest who’s had to comfort one widow or one grieving mother too many between whiskeys I’m always plain Francis. I do all I can to set them straight though we never give cash refunds. I don’t have a penny myself, having given all of mine away back in thirteenth century Assisi

Friday, 9 November 2012

Resident Virtue

   “It’s escaped, Professor Murray. The T-Virus went airborne when General Carstairs’ helicopter struck the Interrogation Technologies laboratory. With current wind speed and direction it’ll reach Heathrow Airport by noon. The contagion will be international in three hours and global in twelve.”
  “Then God help us all, Doctor Pryce.”


  “Darling, I’m just taking the dog out to foul the footpath used by schoolchildren every day.”
  “That’s alright, dear - it’s not as if I expected an evening of sexual or any other kind of pleasure with you tonight; given that our sons’ brief, disappointing conception is fading into distant memory. I’m only grateful that the spin dryer has developed a pronounced wobble at high speeds.”
  “No problem sweetness. I prefer my own company and the dog anyway.”


  “Yes, Constable. Of course I stole these credit cards. Do I seriously look like someone who’s worked hard enough and long enough to merit Platinum rating at my age? Give me a break.”
   “I’d love to, son. I’d also love to give you massive internal bleeding and incurable back pain and a permanent limp. In fact I’ll take you to the Station where you’ll refuse to say anything and some rich, tax-funded lawyer will get you out on the streets tomorrow morning the instant some magistrate who lives far from where when you rob the elderly frees you with a plea for mercy disguised as - let’s see - your ninth consecutive Definitely, Positively Last Chance to escape prison.


   “This is the BBC. This is not news.
   In a carefully managed selection of talking points tonight, a round dozen overpaid, talentless people who basically agree with each other on all the great officially-approved issues of the day will neglect to mention how much they all agree with each other while simultaneously adopting the undeserved pose of fearless seekers after the truth. They will also ignore or deride the lives and worries of that vast majority of people who did not attend the same schools and universities as themselves nor took part in the political campaigns that they naively remember as the gilded years of youth. You’d be better off reading the lunatic fringe on the internet that listening to us, really you would. But here goes nothing anyway….”

   “In a truncated broadcast from Teheran today the Iranian leader stated that of course his government is planning a nuclear attack on Israel just as soon as his scientists finish refining the three warheads for which they already possess sufficient fissionable material during the next few months of Western diplomacy and sanctions.
  He added that he personally couldn’t give a stuffed fig about the fate of a bunch of fast-breeding Sunni fellaheen Arabs too stupid to organize accurate rocket strikes on schools and hospitals only a few kilometers away or to back that up with an effective land-based guerilla war. 

    US Senate leaders of both parties issued a joint statement affirming that they had become very rich supporting vested interests to whom they owed the bulk of their campaign funding.  Being possessed of well-stocked and fortified houses distant from America’s crime-ridden cities, they were rather looking forward to the rioting and famine that would follow the national collapse that they jointly and severally had become powerful and legally untouchable by arranging. Let the suburbs, the dumb Christians, the Mexicans and the guys from the Hood sort it all out - if they can. Failing that, and with the Caribbean in flames after the Honesty Riots there’s always the resort islands off Northern Australia to retreat to if a private navy’s what’s needed to avoid the fallout from China’s Politburo Confessions when the US economy finally croaks. Now that post-industrial Europe and an Africa bereft of Western aid are starving it seems like a good idea to be far away. The taxpayers and grassroots party workers with their awful kids and endless whining can spend Eternity as skittles in Satan’s Alley for all they care.


   Meanwhile, the Australian Prime Minister said that the world had always been a lousy place - except for most of Australia. If only people had spoken their bloody minds a lot more before the T-Virus mutated the human brain to make truth-telling irresistible, maybe the rest of the mess wouldn’t have got so bad.
   “Fortunately,” he went on “the Lucky Country’s a long way over stormy oceans from any seaborne refugee swarm and the Australian Navy can handle anyone who makes it this far. Once the refugee holding camps in the Northern islands that we seized this morning are completed, then resettling any refugees in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines will become an orderly and simple routine. They can farm or mine for a living like the original transportees did. No bloody worries, mate.”

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Hiding the body


    I push the Royal Mail trolley along the pavement of a short terraced street one damp Saturday lunchtime. I hate being here. I want to get away. I want to drag the damned thing into my nearby mail van, drop off the extra weight and drive to the Sorting Office parking yard and then go home. Omdurman Road expects a postman and the regular chap can’t do it and Management insists I work off my usual beat today.
  I go, despite the fear of discovery. Despite the knowledge that when the child is found my life will effectively be over. I am a private man. I don’t want to be known nationwide. I don’t want my picture in the papers, on television and the internet. I don’t want my childhood held up as An Example to millions or my education analysed by celebrity psychologists.
   I don’t want my name to be bound forever to Sally-Ann Gresham’s.
   Yet here I am disguised as an honest, law-abiding Postie delivering bills and cards from nieces too old-maidish or too mean to carry tablet computers on holidays oversea or in those colourless English seaside towns where children’s dreams are dashed by Gulf Stream moisture and Continental cold fronts and by the poor imaginations of parents who imagine oil-stained sands and deadly cliffs as a tropical paradise. Children’s dreams are also dashed by inquisitive men with hunger in their souls.
  My own hunger is physical as much as spiritual today. My stomach growls as my breakfast fades – the meat a bittersweet memory of a happy morning now lost. I had expected to be digging asparagus trenches on my allotment by now or laying the concrete foundation of a shed for my tools and other items. Then the phone call came and they handed me unfamiliar van keys and barely looked at the electric cart that I am learning to hate.
   The voice speaks to me; inescapable in my ears.
  Get it over with Samuel.  Do it and dump the trolley and you visit your allotment and I can go on my way.
  The first door on the street is white paint peeling off timber; a sunburned nose between the wide, curtained eyes of the large bay windows added when the Council sold it.
   “Mrs, um, Macintyre?” I ask as a blowsy old bird peers at me through half-moon spectacles she must have got from  
  “Yes?” she says, hateful in her freedom from the burden I’m hauling around with me.
   “Parcel for you, Missus.” I mutter, handing her a scented buff bubble wrap oblong. A toiletries sample, perhaps. She snatches it from my steady-seeming fingers, oblivious to the soil under the nails and the scars. She stares for a long, awful moment during which I think she might examine the trolley; so low down its tyres because of the extra weight.
  “You’re not the usual one,” she snarls and swishes the door shut. Not discovered. Free, until the next one.
   Next house along is empty and boarded up. From the next music blares from both upper-storey windows. My hand reaches slowly under the flap lid, shaking in fear I’ll expose its contents, hastily stuffed at dawn under a nylon bag of mail.
  Have courage, Sam. Soon you will be away, comes the voice. I doubt it. Today’s heading to one of two possible futures, and neither of them contains much freedom for Samuel Corby, Ba, (hons), failed novelist and obscure public employee. Today’s events will kill any anonymity for me.
  “Letter for you, sir,” I smile deceptively as a red-eyed student type peeks around the door jamb after the summons of my balled fist.
   “Yeah. Right. Er, thanks,” mutters the boy, unclean with last night’s alcohol weed.
  “And there’s a parcel for the resident of the other flat,” I add, obliged to keep the door open longer than I want. “Will you sign for it, or send him down?”
  “No, I’ll sign. And it’s a she. Jo’s a girl.” He signs and a door is once again between eyes that did not pry at the trolley. 
   And so it goes along the flagstones of this Victorian suburb as I wheel my burden over the iron grates in the pavement of a street once home to the minor clerical staff of the mill town’s boom days when the ever-emerging English Middle Class built houses with coal cellars.
   Draughts blow up from those grids from cellars now filled with junk or chest freezers. They bring up scents at which a dog might sniff and bark or scrabble with betraying claws: scents that just before dawn did indeed close the around me and this one street. I have one chance only because the discovery of my trolley’s contents can go tragically, fatally wrong in seconds.
  The voice speaks to me and others; unheard by the rest of town. That’s it. It’s the student house. She’s in the cellar. Go! Go! Go!
   I open the trolley’s lid and pull out the lock-pick shotgun atop the carbon dioxide and heat detectors and blast the Yale away as the mail van opens up and my fellow officers thunder into the house on my heels.

Friday, 2 November 2012

In the attic

   I enter their home quietly while they are still young and burning with new passion. The man is full of his power and the woman is full of her ancient heat and it is not my time. I hide away in the darkness of exile, in silence. I, too, have much heat. I too am strong. I am of the East. I am patient. 
I wait.

  I am present in those early months: so many days of night into the early years of their passion. There is no thought of me as their lovemaking, their love, fills every corner (almost every corner) of the House. I hide in darkness.
I am of the East. I am patient. I am strong. I wait.
   I am there when the woman’s steps grow hesitant and slow; when they become heavy and she learns to fear - to truly fear - for the first time. It is not the time for me, I hear, as she bathes at the other side of the House during long hours of discomfort as her quickening awakens more power in him and as still more heat flows from her like lava.
I am strong. I am alone. I wait.

   I am there when their firstborn comes home, carried along on her light footsteps and when they show him to the House I can feel the man’s footsteps; resolved and courageous, powerful and alert for harm. The woman who long ago learned fear and now she gives it a name; a hundred names. But she never names me among them. It is not yet my time.
I wait.

   The man discovers fear when the boy discovers how to move silently but not safely. I hear the woman’s tense, exhausted words to the man as he bathes the babe in the great, lion-footed bath at the other end of the House. He assures her that he, too, has learned to fear because of having this shared joy to lose and he roars like a lion that he will protect his cub.
I wait.

   I am there when the daughter is made, two weary, loving years later and I am there in the spring when she too is brought to the House. I wait while she begins to move across floors and towards dangers named and unnamed. I listen. I hear from my exile here at the top of the House when the children splash and shout at bath times when they shriek when toys and parents alike bob and scuttle to serve and rush to and fro amid suds and steam and spillages, and I wish to be over them. I yearn to make them feel my power and to hear them scream to their parents for mercy, to take me away from them, to let them be safe away from my power.
I am of the East. I wait.

   And then the day comes when their love is not enough. The world grows cold. It requires more than lives shared nurturing the young and the woman says that there must be more. She hungers for more strength than he presently has and she needs more heat than he arouses in her body and she says that it is time. At last it is time. My time.
At last.

   But the man is cautious and afraid. I wait. It is not the season, he says, it is not the time. The daylight wanes and all is dark except for an hour or so after noon and he is afraid to work alone in the cold and darkness and most of all he is afraid to fail. But the woman will not demur; the man must take heart and strive, cold and solitary, in the dirt and dark and angry hours and when he temporizes she rises up against him like a wrathful goddess; he must bring his woman and his children power; new heat against the cold and darkness of a world grown worse. He must regain his manly strength and certainty because delay will leave him cold and sleepless and alone. I need be patient no longer. It is my time. I have so much heat: the heat of geysers and the sunlight warming ancient swamps. I have the great power; the power of fire and shattered atoms and deep lakes high amongst mountains so far away. I am of the East. I am easy to assemble and install. Please to read instructions careful. Please to consult a plumber if power shower does not operate optimally.

Daughter outlaw

Weird Tales, Broken Home, Insane Asylum, An Ancient Curse

   “You-all come in and set at this here table with me a while. Be hours till it’s fit ter drive on again an’ I reckon I has a yarn or two in me afore work calls. Iff’n I can jest get rid o’ this darned dryness in ma throat.”
   The old trucker sat, all silent-like, until this smooth-lookin’ Northern type took the hint and up an’ bought the old-timer a cold one. An’ jest naturally he ordered a glass o’ somethin’ more expensive for hisself. Yankees have all that style but no class worth a damn.

  “’twas back in ‘46, I think, or wuz it ‘47? Darn, but I’m getting’ forgetful in my old age. Werl, no matter. I wuz haulin’ a load o’ pine from Denver over to Maryland way an’ feelin’ so far from Shreveport I fit to weep for a home I jest han’t se’ed for nigh on two months. The economy was boomin’ then after the War, an’ pine an’ all kindsa softwood wuz sellin’ at a premium. An’ iff’n them easterners knows one thing it’s they likes ter live in comfort - an’ that means timber an’ plenty uv it. Anyways, ‘twas jest after nine. No, it wuz nine-thirty in the evenin’ an’ there wuz a fine full moon risin’ when I see’d this kid setting on a rock by the I-70 an’ wavin’ her arm fit to wear it out, makin’ the universe ally accepted sign of the hitchhiker implorin’ honest workin’ men ter give a free ride.” The whole saloon laughed then as the trucker mimed opening a bottle with a pocketknife an’ chuggin’ the contents.
   “It’s sure lonesome on the roads ev a night an’ I wuz plumb missin’ my Martha an’ the kids, so I slows down a tad - the highway bein’ steep enough that a touch less gas’d do enough - an’ this little girl up and jumps right onto the footboard an’ jest nachrally pulled herself into the cab without a sound. Opened thet big ole Detroit steel door like she was flickin’ her ma’s drapes across the winder come Halloween-time. Skinny little thing she was; pale an’ shakin’ from the cold an none-too thickly dressed for the season’s cold air.

   “Thanks, Mister,” she said, all humble-like. “My name’s Salix and I’m heading back east to find my father. It’s kind of you to offer me a ride.” She spoke like that; all head-you Katy, but with thet California whine like a buzz-saw hittin’ a nail. She tole me her parents wuz divorced a whiles ago when she wuz in her teens after her daddy came back all wrong from the war an’ her Ma took her out West where her own mother’s had lived. But she passed so now she wuz seekin’ her daddy an’ hopin’ ter make a new life down ter Florida or Georgia or somewheres she fit. An’ truth be tole, she sure looked wrong ter these ole eyes. I’ve daughters myself an’ I’d hide my face in shame iff’n one o’ mine looked halfway thet hungry. After a while, (an’ the Lord knows I’ll tolerate anythin’ but this one was a-pulling on a bottle of G-ddamn beer the whole while) she tells me a bit more.

   “They locked me in a hospital away from town. Pretty gardens and lots of games and stuff to draw with and weave but the food was awful and they just wouldn’t believe my dreams about, well…” She kinda growd secretive about thet, but I have a fatherly face an’ so after a while she shakes out her long blonde hair an’ adds: “About the Evil Dead. About vampires.” The saloon was silent now, ‘cept for the Northern feller pushin’ jug after jug across to the old-timer while the saloonkeeper smiled as he added up the tab.
   “There was this one guy. Real old and with an eye-patch; all muscular but gone to fat. Bulimic, they called him. He was always joking and cracking wise and he sort of took a shine to me and never laughed about my nightmares. Never once.”

   There was a pause as a Sherriff’s deputy came in and asked if anyone had noticed any strangers of an evening hereabouts. But even the Yankee was well known; he sold air conditioning to construction companies offering comfort to their customers come pollen season. It seemed the Basement Murders were heading west again; nine slaughtered in their beds that month between the saloon and the State capital. But even Deputy McCabe wanted to hear the rest.

  “He used to come to my room after lights out and whispered outside my door, storytelling. Terrible tales. Beautiful tales. About my mother and father and the war and how they were heroes – even my father who was, well. You know.”

  We all knew. There was not a head in the saloon that afternoon but nodded sadly about the men who’d gone off to do their duty but returned damaged; unable to fit into peacetime life.
   He sighed, and looked around. 
“Thet’s why I got me this. I was too sim-pathetic.” He indicated the purple and white scarring from his left temple down his cheek to one jaw and beyond to a scrawny neck too sparsely grown for the beard to hide his injuries. “She kep’ me interested in her yarns about the ancient curse an’ her Desiny an’ bein’ chosen till it was too late an’ I jest had ter take a rest. I let her sleep in the cab covered in Martha’s quilt an’ I crept up ter the day bed in back. I figger she was new to her life o’ crime an’ musta panicked an’ hightailed it into the sunshine with the job only half done.
  Outside the fattened livestock in his tractor-trailer howled and snarled in the afternoon’s deadly heat. They sang that nasty, sulky old one about the dawn’s early light.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Night watchman

   Professor Milner’s death weighed upon me as a frightened secretary ushered me down into the Chairman’s office: too late now to drive my permitted car like hell for the coast with Annie and Jasmine and sail Sea Princess to the Safety Zones of Europe. Jutland, perhaps; or Corsica.

   In earlier decades the Chairman’s moonlike hail-fellow-well-met countenance would have sported a monocle and cigar. Tonight the clubbable face smiled above an open collared casual shirt; his light bulb head fringed by a toilet seat crescent of thinning hair. If they could truly read minds I’d be dead by now, I thought. Or worse.
  “Come in Robbins, old boy. You don’t need an invitation,” Naughtie growled across a desk bereft of the previous chairman’s Newton’s Cradle and adorned instead with a Rubik’s cube like some literary land-mine. Cute. “Sorry to call you in from annual leave old chap but this Milner business needs putting to bed double quick. See here - oh, do sit down man. “Sit” I said. I don’t… Well, of course I do, but I mean to say I intend you no harm. We’re all in this together and have our duties and it’s really just the same as it always was. We put in a day’s work, take the pay and go home safe and sound to our families.”
   Consider the alternatives if you don’t, Robbins, ‘old boy’, I interpreted. Damn him.
   Too late for that, too. The banter was all Battle of Britain fighter pilot’s safely returned from stonking the Hun but this thing was Twenty-First Century managerialism incarnate. We on the Lunatic Fringe had believed and blogged endlessly that (motto: “Exceeding beyond belief”)was a communist front importing Marxism into the newsrooms, schools and town halls of Britain via influence peddling and entryism: leveraging European Union health-and-safety directives and environmentalism as the vectors of the disease of unfreedom; English ACORNs. We had been dead wrong. Now most of us weren’t even wrong.
  “See here Brian,” the Chairman went on, waving an ostentatiously ceramic paperknife over a Security report into the Professor’s death, “We have a huge hole in the T.O. because of the Professor’s suicide. Injecting haemotoxin into one’s Nobel Laureate arteries: such a waste. His talent will be missed. The shareholders coveted his research long before its publication forced us to scrap our timetable. Milner is chiefly responsible for where we are today; all at sixes and sevens, rushing around half a century ahead of schedule. What I need to know now is if you or anyone else in Human Resources had any inkling about the Professor’s state of mind or his intentions.” It had been called Personnel Management back when I took my degree. I hate the new title and beleive it’s one of theirs; a part of the drip, drip, drip subversion of hitherto free peoples towards Mankind’s newfound status as property.
   Be careful, lad, it’s not England any more. These days the phrase ‘human rights’ refers to cargo manifests, auctioneers’ lists and bills of sale. “Mister Naughtie, we had no idea. Our records have been kept current and thoroughly cross-referenced since 9/11 when the Company took on more defence contracts. The scientists just don’t impinge into HR territory very much. Mostly it’s squabbles about parking spaces or when employment law obliges us to order them on statutory leave. But then they simply log on from home and work the centrifuges remotely.” The Company had constructed automated laboratories under the new Administration Wing. If Al-Qaeda  or a revanchist Russia had bombed it the probability was high that the filtration plants would have continued unhindered – which was probably why our secret owners had instructed their puppet powers-that-be to design the factory back in 2003.
   “I’m placing a great deal of trust in you Brian, and hold you personally responsible for the welfare of our research staff. Observe carefully and if anyone shows the slightest sign of trouble report him immediately. The switchboard’s manned 24/7 and emails to treason@ go straight to Security here in the Basement. We’ll respond without delay.” They can’t phone or Skype but they can operate keyboards. “Don’t be so glum. This is promotion to Non-executive Director. You’re respected by the Shareholders, our partners and other stakeholders. So much so that we’re contemplating freelancing you to work the day shift permanently and see your lovely daughter at seven o’clock every evening.” Which meant she’d soon be attending an Academy where the hostage children of the janissary caste learn to administrate their fellow humans’ lives as valuable, replaceable chattels.
  “Oh, and Robbins. You haven’t seen your ruffian brother lately, have you? Such talent squandered by going into the former army. We need chaps like him minding Africa now the aid budget’s been rationalised.”
   “No, sir. I haven’t seen him since before…Before.”
   “Very well then, off you go. You have much to do.”

   Outside it almost resembled the country of my birth; moonlit walls bordering asymmetrical Norman fields. Limestone houses with high roofs. Cricket pitches and pubs and the occasional origami fuselage of a downed helicopter. Burned churches and scorched and poisoned riverbanks. Gallows everywhere.
   They’d always owned the Internet but hedges make perfect dead letterboxes and three brief blue LED flashes confirmed that my family was safely evacuated. While Yorkshire is no Himalayan sanctuary or Appalachian militia camp, it is big. As I scattered a flask of garlic pollen into the air conditioning and pulled on cricketer’s body protection and high-impact polymer helmet I glimpsed the Management car park where dark-windowed BMWs stood in oil from the auxiliary generator tanks leaking towards time delay fuses.
   I handed traditional ash wood cricket stumps to each of the others drifting in through the Company gym: we’d give Naughtie stakeholders indeed.
   I hefted a steel-tipped stump and prayed (without truly hoping) that I wasn’t promoting myself from Management’s Flavour of the Month straight to Chef’s Special.

Friday, 19 October 2012

On the doorstep


   Bringing eternal life to strangers is a thankless task.

   Sometimes it’s a wordless task. Type Ones half-open their doors and see the suit and the pamphlets and they slam them without a word.
   The Type Twos are little better. They notice it all and check my badge to discover which variety they are rejecting with; “No, thank you. We’re Baptists and happy about that, thank the Lord”, or “No, thank you. We’re not at all religious; we’re all Church of England in this house.” That sort shuts up with a whoosh and ‘have a good day,’ as if hoping another church’s evangelists will make a convert.
   It’s hard; this door-to-door, but no-one said it would be easy. True; on the rare occasions when someone’s interested it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world and so worthwhile. One gets an overwhelming sensation of joy when one’s in a home and there’s an opportunity to make a conversion. It doesn’t always last, of course; there are all kinds of resistance and doubts and sometimes they switch to outright hostility in the blink of an eye and one can find oneself becoming disinvited. It’s painful when one is no longer welcome.
    But even being shown the exit is better than the Type Threes. They’re the clever ones; the intellectuals; the living embodiment of ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’. On the doorstep they have to beat you down with how Genesis parallels many Creation myths or how the resurrection of the flesh and the return from Death’s kingdom is a story common to many deities: Osiris, Orpheus, Persephone, J***s C****t. And they’re right, of course; most religions address the fear of death and offer some comfort or escape. Don’t get me started on what they say about Holy Communion. Just don’t.
   But it’s the rudeness that upsets me; the attitude that because they’ve read anti-religion articles in The Guardian or New Atheist blogs they’re experts on the Church’s persecutions of heretics, witch-burnings and all that burial-at-the-crossroads nonsense. All of which happened, of course, but it’s also insulting and an example of the Devil quoting scripture to serve his ends. Even though I was perfectly aware of that stuff before my own conversion, I still hate it when they talk about the C*******n Church. It’s painful to me.
   I love Type Fours. They’re the dubious, wavering ones: the anxious, lonely hopefuls; the would-be seekers if only they had the time but ‘I’ve got dinner on the hob and I don’t want it to boil over’ brigade. One can get to them. There’s a way in with Type Fours if one’s careful and not too pushy. I usually employ humour. “I know it sounds funny in this day and age when you hear someone say ‘Let me tell you the good news of how you can find eternal life,’ but I promise you that it doesn’t hurt a bit and will only take a few moments of your time. Ten minutes, tops, if you’re interested.” 
   Take this evening, for example. It was just after the teatime rush before the evening’s TV and before the soaps had started. I knocked and a lady answered. She was blonde and thirtyish and healthy-looking and lacked that happily married glow or the optimistic dating-and-still-excited aura which warns I have no chance. I started my pitch and I could see she was less than thrilled by my wholesome appearance. There was a Simpson’s umpteenth-time rerun playing in the background: the one with the three-eyed fish. She wouldn’t reject me for a mutant fish, surely? Somehow we got on to the topic of workplace stress (I’m in second-hand jewellery myself and despite the upward pressure on gold prices since 2008, reset gems just aren’t selling the way they did before Freddie Mac was valued at round about a Big Mac and fries), and then we spoke about workplace rudeness and loneliness in crowds…and at that point something from Corinthians seemed to do it and she invited me in.
   Her living room was cosy and all the photos were of nieces in Australia rather than anyone who could be anybody’s strapping sons. Her bookshelves ran to cookery, historical fiction (I like a nice Georgette Heyer myself in the dark lonely hours before dawn) and some Dark Romance which might be unfortunate, but I ignored those. No Bible. There was neither PC nor laptop so perhaps no friends would miss her on Facebook and phone her. There was no crucifix on the wall so she was probably tabula rasa theologically. No mirror to indicate vanity and hence worldliness. She wore an angora cardigan with slacks and pumps that spoke of scraping together spinsterish savings before the sale ended. She also had a nice enough pearl set that I doubted any admirer had troubled his Platinum card to lay before her. No silverware anywhere. Perfect.
    She smiled and looked a little embarrassed and a lot sheepish. “So tell me, Dennis,” she asked, “what is the Good News about finding the Path to Eternal Life?”
  “It doesn’t hurt very much at all,” I amended, smiling toothily into eyes that right at that moment saw the light just an instant too late.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Clock’s Pageant - The Dead Monkey’s Revenge.

   “Time wounds all heels,” quoted the Archangel of the Proconsulidae, scratching his ear with an imperfectly adapted hind leg. Sitting amid throngs of spirits belonging to the Circle of Fallen Primates, the AoP gazed down at the Earth: still green; still full of life and promise; still full of Homo sapiens sapiens. Still empty of Proconsuls and a whole host of opposable-thumb types who just didn’t make the cut for The Disney Channel, the Moon landings and sub-prime mortgage bundling.

   “Nuts to dat,” growled  an orange-grey Afrotarsius whose dorsal tiger stripes and buff thorassic fur-patch the exact shape of the KFC logo no paleontologist had been able to infer from the lower jaw and handful of teeth that had so far been the sole evidence of his people in the remote, terrestrial here and now of the Twenty-first Century Earth. Gollum-like eyes resembling sulky grapes stared down at Hollywood Boulevard moodily; dreaming of dating J-Lo and cruising The Strip in a Ferrari or running bamboolike fingers through Emma Thompson’s hair, for some reason. Maybe the British accent works even in the Evolutionary Cul-de-sac neighbourhood of the Afterlife. Or maybe that should be ‘perhaps,’ dontcher know old boy? “Look at all dose stoopid Progenitor-mating biped types screwin’ it all up. I mean, seriously? Friends goes ter ten seasons an’ De Howlin’ gets six sequels an’ still dose dopes down dere expect ter colonize Outer Space fer Goodallssakes? Gimme a break! De Biohaz musta reached deir evolutional zenith wid de original series Star Trek. It’s gotta be all downhill from now, right? Am I right, guys?” 
   “ I don’t know ‘bout that, Marley,” muttered a Gigantopithecus in the back row; dividing his attention between pitching a baseball upward toward the starry firmament and popping fortune cookies between his huge, square jaws. “The reptiles must of thought they was finished back in the Permian–Triassic extinction event. Rise Of The Mammals an’ all that but then, bingo! Along comes Coelophysis a-swingin’ those dinky little hips an’ all of a sudden it’s back into the burrows for the uppity mammals for the best part of another quarter billion years. You can’t extrapolate Mankind’s imminent extinction just because Battleship followed Alien. Things can go backward for a while without it being the end for a line of evolution; look at the ‘prequel’ Star Wars movies, for example, or Alien 3 or Terminator 3. Sheesh! But then came The Matrix. Awesome. And remember when we all thought that sliced bread was the best thing since, well, unsliced bread and believed baking could never get any better but then they came up with Twinkies? How cool was that!  Not all apparent evolutionary degenerations are dead-ends; some can be loops, kind of:  are in fact just stages to something better. take Bruce Willis. Are you seriously saying that David Addison was cooler than the later, self-referential John McClane or the Special Forces guy in The Fifth Element? No way it turned out to be true, but looking at that hairline over the years you might guess he was on his way out.”
  “The point is,” put in a rather camp Homo heidelbergensis drinking soda and watching The Eocene Channel through a laptop Time Portal where a pair of so-far undiscovered and unclassified saber toothed caribou were sparring over the sad-looking corpse of an equally unclassified giant tree badger, “you can’t just say it’s lights out for ole Double Sap just because they elected, well, you know. They can still bounce back from their lows, and if you don’t believe me, all I’m gonna say to you is walk upstream in time from Bewitched to Pushing Daisies and just accept that a species can survive one helluva lot of lot of Golden Girls and Dukes of Hazard on the TV pageant to Buffy and South Park.
  “You Tea Party Mammoth guys always mention South Park, don’tcha? Never reference M*A*S*H or Taxi, do yez?” sulked the Afrotarsius, tossing an ectoplasmic peanut at the big hominid’s head. “You Red Ochre Cave types had it easy up in the Ice Ages. Us so-called ‘lower primates’ did all the heavy lifting long before yez came on da scene an’ took da world away from us. We scampered up into da trees once da dinosaurs was gone. We did da whole nocturnal-to-color-vision change thing. We suffered and starved and bred and survived and developed da opposable thumbs millions of years before you from da Giant Elk’s Club came along and stole all our achievements.”
  “That’s ‘Log-cabin Mammoth guys,’ if you please, Mister Occupy Madagascar” retorted heidelbergensis, mincing away to mince a ghostly cave bear.

  “Hey, why the long faces?” asked the returning Archangel of the Proconsulidae, carrying a rather batter football. “Just because you folks no longer rule the Earth, and never did in some cases, it doesn’t mean that the Creator doesn’t have a Plan for you. And the Plan is to be happy. This is supposed to be Heaven for crying out loud, so get happy. And even Mankind won’t last forever. Touch football, people? Furs versus skins this time. C’mon guys, the clock's ticking, let’s go.”

   After a while, even the resentful proto-tarsier ghost Marley the Afrotarsius cheered up. Football really was the best - especially with this particular ball. Even though the long beard was ragged by now and the frock coat torn and stained from being used in a thousand touchdowns, Marley just loved to kick and punt this very special ball. This really was Evolutionary Dead-End Heaven, he mused, kicking Charles Darwin as hard as he could for a field goal.