So Who’s It Gonna Be? The 11 Contenders to Meet Lucille Head-On in Tonight’s Walking Dead Episode



After waiting almost half a year to find out who Negan’s victim is going to be after the Season 6 finale left us on the most frustrating cliff-hanger ever, fans of The Walking Dead will finally get some answers, as AMC air the Season 7 premiere on Sunday, October 23.

If you need a recap of all the people potentially about to meet a sticky and rather prickly end, look no further. Here are the 11 contenders for a one-on-one with Lucille:



Why He’s a Contender:

It’s supposed to be him in the comic books… which means everyone’s convinced it won’t actually be him because it’s just too damn obvious. Think about it – it’s the perfect double bluff. Plus, he was in the van, meaning those first-person POV shots might be from his perspective.

Why He Might Be Safe:

The show’s creators went to an awful lot of trouble in Season 6 to save Glenn from almost certain death, and it would be odd if they did all that just to finish him off half a season later.



Why She’s a Contender:

Michonne and Rick have just started doing the dirty and they’re all dopey-happy in love. She’s even making a pretty good mother-substitute for Carl. Most people in the TWD Universe don’t stay happy for long. Rick and Carl would both be devastated – it would be a clever move by Negan to crush Rick with grief and cloud his judgment. Plus, she was 1 of 3 people in the van in those intriguing first-person POV shots, suggesting she might be in the firing line.

Why She Might Be Safe:

In the comics, Michonne survives this encounter with Negan and goes on to play an important part in the Alexandria story arc. Killing her off at this early stage makes it a lot more difficult to stay in sync with the comics (although another strong female character could step up to take her place).



Why He’s a Contender:

Norman Reedus’ appearance on The Talking Dead immediately following the Season 6 finale got fans worried, as actors often do this once their on-screen counterpart has been offed. Also, the popularity of Ride with Norman Reedus (also on AMC) might lead to everyone’s favourite hick hanging up his crossbow for good in search of greener pastures. Finally, he was in the van with Glenn and Michonne, and those first-person POV shots suggest that puts him directly in harm’s way.

Why He Might Be Safe:




Why She’s a Contender:

If the creators have gone ahead and substituted Glenn for someone else, there could be no more poignant choice than Maggie. Loved by everyone, she’s a survivor whose pregnancy makes her inherently vulnerable to Negan’s special brand of senseless, all-out psychotic attacks. The group would be too shocked to resist whatever else Negan’s got in store, or could lose it completely.

Why She Might Be Safe:

She’s sick… and PREGNANT. The show has given us some pretty gruesome deaths in the past, but I find it hard to believe that they’re going to stoop so low as to beat someone in Maggie’s condition to death. It would be the most shocking exit so far bar none.



Why He’s a Contender:

His refusal to cower at Negan’s feet like the others in the Season 6 finale was ballsy, but it might just be what gets him killed. I get the feeling Negan isn’t going to let someone like that stick around for long. Plus, he’s just gotten all zen about his place in the world and has even started a little something with Sasha (much to Rosita’s dismay). Quashing happiness is what TWD does best.

Why He Might Be Safe:

Anyone familiar with the comics will know that Abraham was due to get bumped off mid-way through Season 6, but in the end, it was Denise who ended up with an arrow through the eyeball. It’s possible that the show’s creators have something else in mind for ol’ Abe, in which case he might be safe from Negan (for now, at least).



Why He’s a Contender:

The show’s creators are no stranger to violence against children – I mean, who could forget Carol’s now-iconic “look at the flowers” scene with Lizzie? – and Carl’s far from being a fan favourite. It would have a sizeable impact upon the group and no-one would have to listen to Rick scream “CAAARRRRL!!!” anymore. Everyone wins.

Why He Might Be Safe:

In the Season 6 finale, Negan can be heard saying directly before he starts smashing that “if anybody says anything, cut the boy’s other eye out and feed it to his father.” Rather an odd statement if Carl’s about to go under the bat.



Why He’s a Contender:

He’s been the leader of the group pretty much since the start – Negan might choose him purely for that reason. Disorganised people are a hell of a lot easier to subjugate.

Why He Might Be Safe:

Seriously, as if they’re gonna kill off Rick!!!



Why He’s a Contender:

Eugene’s been a bit gung-ho lately, so there’s a chance that the show might decide to take him out, just as he’s adapting to the Hell that is Walker-World.

Why He Might Be Safe:

This change in the attitude could just as easily be the start of something wonderful: Eugene finally using his smarts to give the group a strategic advantage in future tussles. As of yet, he’s been hiding behind everyone else so it’d be nice to see his character become something more.



Why She’s a Contender:

Now that Abraham’s walked out on her for Sasha, she’s bound to do the whole gloomy ex thing – it might be the show creators have decided to avoid that completely in the most brutal way possible. Plus, it would make Abraham feel really bad.

Why She Might Be Safe:

Her death probably wouldn’t have as big of an impact on the whole group as some of the other choices in this list. She’s cool and everything, but she’s easily replaceable, and I think the sheer genericity of her character might save her from Negan’s bat.



Why She’s a Contender:

She’s just started getting cosy with Abraham, and as I keep saying, happiness is lethal in TWD. Plus, her getting killed now would push the ginger warrior right over the edge.

Why She Might Be Safe:

Sasha had that whole ‘finding the will to live again’ thing going on throughout Season 5, which would be little more than filler if they kill her off now. She could be the next female resident bad-ass, given half the chance.



Why He’s a Contender:

If AMC decide to take the easy way out, killing Aaron off could serve as a way to demonstrate what a psychotic lunatic Negan is without actually damaging the core dynamics of the group.

Why He Might Be Safe:

Let’s face it – no-one really gives a crap about Aaron yet, including the other characters. If he’s chosen as Negan’s victim, it’s going to be one almighty anti-climax.

So, who do you think it’s going to be? Vote below!



Now, I’m going to put forward a little theory of my own: not one, but two, of Rick’s gang are going to feel the brunt of Negan’s barbed-wire baseball bat, Lucille – and there’s a very good reason why I think so.

Much of the fanbase for the show are also familiar with the comic books, meaning pretty much everyone has been waiting for Negan to show up and beat one of our favourite characters to death (y’know, like you do). The script-writers have swapped deaths and character arcs around before – for instance, when Hershel ended up getting his head chopped off by the Governor in Tyreese’s place – so simply subbing Glenn with someone else doesn’t justify the cliff-hanger. They would have had much more impact with a close-up shot, gory as hell, and ended on that.

Unless there’s a hidden twist set to shock everyone tuning in for Season 7.

The audience automatically assumes that the first-person POV shot that closes the Season 6 finale, and every one that comes before it (the emergence from the van, for instance), is from the POV of the same person. However, there’s nothing to confirm that’s actually true… and that’s the beauty of the twist.

I think someone who wasn’t in the van (i.e. not Daryl, Michonne or Glenn) will get up close and personal with Lucille first, because that throws off all theories that the POV shots confirm that they’re in the firing line. My guess is Abraham – he’s the only one who doesn’t cower to Negan and I think his death would really drive home the fact that resistance is not an option.

Then in the immediate aftermath, when we think everyone else is safe, someone else will also get killed – if not beaten to death, then killed in some other gruesome way. Glenn is my guess.

We’ll just have to wait until later to see if I’m right.

(Images: AMC)

9 of the Strangest and Most Gruesome Author Deaths


People often say that life is stranger than fiction, but what about death? Throughout history, many notable authors have themselves become the subjects of a noteworthy story because of the strange and sometimes gruesome ways in which they have died.

Listed below are 9 of the weirdest demises I have come across. If you are aware of any others, please feel free to add them in the comments section below!


  1. Christopher Marlowe


Believe it or not, the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe was no stranger to a bar-room brawl. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe arrived at a lodging house with a few acquaintances to dine and have drinks. Everything was going well until it was time to pay the tab, at which point a heated argument broke out between Marlowe and his friend, Ingram Frizer.

Eyewitnesses claim that Marlowe seized Frizer’s dagger and in the resultant struggle, Frizer plunged the implement into Marlowe’s skull directly above his right eye, killing him instantly.

As if this wasn’t brutal enough, some conspiracy theorists claim that Marlowe’s murder was actually an assassination ordered by none other than Queen Elizabeth I – a theory made more credible by the fact that she pardoned Frizer four weeks later for undisclosed reasons. As an outspoken atheist, Marlowe was seen as a direct threat to the Church and given this was Elizabethan England (where you could be executed for far lesser crimes), it is plausible that ol’ Liz’s orders to prosecute Marlowe “to the full” may actually have been an order to end his life, carried out by his friend.

Weirder still, there are some who support the Marlovian Theory that the whole thing was an elaborate set-up designed to help Marlowe flee the country to avoid his impending inquisition and that Marlowe lived for many years afterwards, producing plays under a different name… and the name he apparently chose? William Shakespeare. The real Shakespeare, these theorists argue, was nothing more than a front-man to allow Marlowe to keep writing and having his plays performed in England long after 1593. Although there are many who doubt Shakespeare was the mastermind behind all of his plays, this is one of the strangest theories out there about who the great bard really was.


  1. Aeschylus


Aeschylus, an Ancient Athenian author who specialised in tragedies, befell a tragedy of his own in 455 BC after having his head split open by a falling tortoise. Yes, you read that right. When outlining the specifics of Aeschylus’ demise, Valerius Maximus wrote that the tortoise had been dropped by an eagle that had mistaken his bald pate for a rock (a technique used by hunting birds to ‘break open’ their prey).

That’s not the only bizarre thing about his death. In his Naturalis Historiæ, Pliny claims that Aeschylus was only outdoors in the first place to avert the fulfillment of a prophecy that his death would occur as a result of a “falling object.” Spooky!


  1. Dan Andersson


Sadly, the Swedish poet Dan Andersson is better known for the gruesome nature of his death than he is for his life’s works. He died on September 16, 1920, after the concierge at the appropriately-named Hotel Hellman failed to inform him the room was about to be fumigated for bedbugs.

I know what you’re thinking – unless they were some kind of massive, mutant bed-bugs needing to be mowed down with bullets or something, Andersson shouldn’t really have been at too much risk… right? However, in 1920s Stockholm it was commonplace to use lethal doses of hydrogen cyanide for pest control, meaning the fumigation basically transformed Andersson’s hotel room into a giant, chintzy gas chamber. His body wasn’t found until 3:00pm during the clean-up, at which time it was much too late. The hotel has since been demolished.


  1. Edgar Allan Poe


To this day, the death of Edgar Allan Poe – considered by many to be the godfather of modern horror – is steeped in mystery and intrigue. Why? The fact is that no-one really knows how and why Poe died. No death certificate was ever filed and the only known obituary in existence claims that he died of “phrenitis” (congestion of the brain), which frankly raises more questions than it answers.

What little is known of the circumstances surrounding Poe’s demise sounds like they were plotted by the man himself in one of his more sinister tales.

On a wet and stormy night back in October 3, 1849, a compositor working for the Baltimore Sun by the name of Joseph W. Walker found a drenched and delirious man lying in the gutter close to Gunner’s Hall in Baltimore. The man, it transpired, was none other than Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe had left Richmond, Virginia bound for Philadelphia the week prior to being discovered by Walker, but since his departure no one had heard from him. As Poe was incoherent until his death 4 days later on October 7, 1849, he was unable to tell anyone where he had been for the last week, but Walker noted at the time that Poe was dressed in soiled, second-hand clothes (clearly not his own), a fact which struck him as suspicious.

Another interesting fact is that Poe called out the name “Reynolds” repeatedly the night before he died, but nobody has ever been able to piece together who or what this meant – was it a plea for help, or an accusation? Or, perhaps, simply the senseless outpourings of his maelstrom of a mind in those final days?

There are many theories surrounding how exactly Poe died, the most popular including that he was “cooped” (a practice in which corrupt electioneers would abduct voters, ply them with drink, dress them in gentlemanly get-up, and force them to vote for a specific candidate) and subsequently died of alcohol poisoning, or that his raging alcoholism exacerbated a more serious medical condition (such as syphilis, diabetes, TB, epilepsy, or rabies) which not only killed him, but may have driven him mad in the process.


  1. Tennessee Williams


The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams, died aged 71 of asphyxiation after choking on a small plastic bottle cap.

His body was discovered a day later on February 25, 1982, by his secretary Joh Uecker.

New York’s Chief Medical Examiner later ruled that Williams was using the cap to ingest barbiturates.

Due to his copious drug use, Williams did not have a gag reflex and so was unable to expel the object from his throat after swallowing it. Moral of the story: be careful what you put in your mouth.


  1. Li Bai


Li Bai (also known as Li Bo) was one of the great Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty; he was also a serial womaniser and a drunk. Although the circumstances of his death in 762 AD are now the stuff of Chinese legend, meaning they may have been embellished or be entirely inaccurate, they’re bizarre enough to deserve a place in the list.

The story goes that following a long night of drinking, Li Bai drowned in the Yangtze River after trying to “embrace” the reflection of the moon, falling from his boat in the process. “Embrace,” of course, is a rather euphemistic way of saying Li Bai tried to *ahem* grab the moon by the crater in a show of lust of which Donald J. Trump would be proud… which, let’s face it, is a pretty weird way to go.


  1. Mark Twain


Mark Twain, author of such classics-now-considered-racist as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, died of a heart attack in his home in Redding, Connecticut on April 21, 1910… a decidedly average demise. What’s so intriguing about Twain is not therefore how he died, but when: more specifically, the fact that he actually predicted the date of his death more than a year before it happened.

Twain is quoted as saying that he “came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835” (i.e. he was born on the same day that the comet came into closest proximity with the Earth) and so he “expect[ed] to go out with it.” This expectation was eerily fulfilled as on April 21, the comet could be seen once again streaking across the skies, the closest to Earth it had been on this particular fly-by.

Can a man die of expectation? Or was it fate that saw “these two unaccountable freaks… go out together,” as Twain himself once predicted they would?


  1. Albert Camus


Like some of the other authors on this list, the death of writer and philosopher Albert Camus has drawn the attention of conspiracy theorists worldwide. Although officially Camus died an accidental death as a result of a fatal car crash on January 4, 1960, evidence has since been uncovered that suggests the crash was no accident. In fact, there is a possibility that Camus was killed by the KGB.

This theory hinges on the testimony of the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, who claims in his diary that the crash that killed Albert Camus in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies.

This act was apparently in retaliation for an article published in Franc-tireur in 1957 in which Camus had criticised Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

According to Zábrana, the KGB damaged a tyre on Camus’ car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut into the wheel at speed, but all evidence of the device was destroyed in the resultant crash.


  1. Sylvia Plath


The acclaimed poet and feminist icon, Sylvia Plath, battled with depression for most of her life, undergoing experimental treatments such as electroshock therapy in her search for a ‘cure.’

After several failed suicide attempts (including ingesting large amounts of pills and intentionally driving herself off the road into a river), Plath succeeded in taking her own life on February 11, 1963, using her most extreme method yet: while her children slept in the next room of her London home, she plugged up the door leading into the kitchen with wet towels, knelt on the floor, and stuck her head in her gas oven as far as it would go. When they found her dead a few hours later, her head was still in the oven.

(Images: Wikipedia)

A few thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (study notes)


‘Seeing the Cat’s Cradle in Life’s Meaningless Strings:
Embracing Foma in the Face of MADness’

Cat’s Cradle (1963) was published the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before[1]. Writers like Vonnegut, in the looming shadow of the early Cold War, faced the challenge of conveying the comic absurdity of humankind’s ‘condition’ – an existentialist concept which, in Sartre’s words, ‘describes all the limitations that a priori define man’s fundamental situation in the Universe’ [2]. Tellingly, those narratives acknowledging the hopelessness of our position have proved to be the most enduring. Vonnegut’s text and Beckett’s Endgame is amongst the most prominent examples. Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is another particularly influential example.

In the nuclear age, the truths of humankind’s fragility and the futility of their position are painfully unavoidable. Its collective existence is constantly threatened by unfathomable power, which it cannot defend itself against. That power lies is possessed by a small number of individuals whose actions are not limited by the chance of retribution, or intervention, from God. The last remaining deterrent to aggressive action is ‘mutually assured destruction’ (an absurd notion in itself) – the fact that the enemy would retaliate to an attack with full force, without moral restraint, ensuring the elimination of both nations. More absurdly this is not an idea taken from fiction – during the Cold War, though neither nation wanted to strike the first blow, Khrushchev famously warned Kennedy that ‘if the US insists on war, then we’ll all meet together in Hell’ [3].

The issues of living in the nuclear age resonate highly with the atheist branch of existentialist philosophy which stresses that, in God’s absence, the responsibility for humankind sits entirely in the hands of men (please note: this is not meant to be gender specific – I only mean to stress that it is the action of our species that determine the human ‘condition’, not the decisions of an omniscient third party). Philosophers like Sartre believe that humankind has been ‘‘abandoned’ by God [and is therefore] ‘responsible’ for [its own] existence’, though ‘the whole [thing is] meaningless’ without a pre-ordained plan or purpose. There are numerous existentialist philosophers, but Sartre is among the most influential of the French atheists. He incorporates the terms of his contemporaries and places them in context with his own work, and so reference to his work allows for clarity in this essay. In this passage, he paraphrases Heidegger to explain the consequences of our ‘abandonment’.

However, existentialists also believe that human self-awareness leads each individual to a sustainable, unavoidable sense of morality and responsibility to others. Vonnegut clearly disagrees, and challenges the reliability of individual morality in the context of nuclear issues. Using Dr Hoenikker – his crude caricature of the archetypal nuclear scientist – Vonnegut demonstrates how morality is easily forgotten in the pursuit of scientific truth. Though not specifically involved in the Manhattan Project, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir became the model for Dr Hoenikker’s character. Vonnegut seethed, in an interview with The Nation, that the scientist was reckless and ‘indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he… handed out to whoever was around… he didn’t give a damn… [because] any truth he found was beautiful in its own right’[4]. His creation of ‘icenine’, for example, was solely for the purpose of solidifying mud; the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. Even after the destructive power of the atomic bomb is confirmed, Hoenikker refuses to acknowledge the ‘sin[s]… science [has committed]’[5].

Vonnegut’s narrator muses that, when scientists distribute nuclear technology like ‘playthings’ they inevitably fall into the hands of ‘short-sighted children’ who misuse them, because that category contains the majority of the human race[6]. This progresses his argument towards a generalised scepticism of human morality. He uses Dr Hoenikker’s three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – to demonstrate how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ‘ice-nine’ for a governmental position, attractive husband and ‘a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget’ respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision has made them happier[7].

Whilst exhibiting the selfishness of modern humankind, Vonnegut also highlights its reluctance to accept the reality of its hopeless ‘condition’. He recognises that the existentialist insistence upon untainted authenticity of the subjective experience (i.e. the constant pursuit of truth) provides miserable individuals no opportunity for escapism – an outlet which was very much required during the Cold War. All of the characters in Cat’s Cradle reject the truth of their circumstances in some way, signalling the inadequacy of reality to pacify the human need for meaning. The most prominent example, though, is the Bokononist faith. Followers of this religion perceive ‘truth [to be] the enemy’, and escape the hopelessness of reality by embracing blatant lies, including the shameless invention of a God[8].

This is not a phenomena exclusive to the nuclear age, by any means. The evocation of God acts to many people as an installation of purpose and order in the Universe. Human beings are thus able to surrender to the concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ (referred to in the text as ‘zah-mah-ki-bo’) and pass over the crushing burdens of responsibility, isolation, guilt and paralysing fear they feel in the face of meaninglessness (where ‘zah-mah-ki-bo’ is defined simply as ‘fate – inevitable destiny’). However, the concept of a pre-ordained plan and purpose for human existence is made even more desirable in the face of nuclear threat. The more futile the situation, the more tempted individuals are to affix false meanings to it.

Bokonon’s offering of lies that reorganise an individual’s perception of his existence – that make ‘[life] all fit nice’ – are thus shown to be infinitely preferable to the truth for the people of San Lorenzo, for whom reality has little to offer[9]. The Books of Bokonon, then, demonstrate how religion can become ‘the one real instrument of hope… [when] the truth [is too] terrible to face’[10]. The existence of their God is a fantasy, of course – the Books of Bokonon acknowledge this but, paradoxically, this information is largely irrelevant. It is what the existence of these Books signals which is important: that the human desire for meaning overwhelms the human desire for truth.

This is explained via the metaphor of the cat’s cradle. It is a simple construct, made between the fingers with a length of string. Its creator knows that the finished product will contain neither cat nor cradle. However, if he invokes the power of his imagination, he can affix a purpose and a meaning to an otherwise meaningless series of X’s. Each string is thus given a purpose (e.g. an arm of the cradle), much like the agents in a Bokononist ‘karass’, but that purpose is purely imagined (note: a ‘karass’ is defined in the Books of Bokonon as a ‘team [of people] that do[es] God’s will without ever discovering [for sure] what they are doing’ [11]). However, without affixing a false meaning to the outcome, the action itself becomes pointless. If, then, the cat’s cradle acts as a metaphor for the human state of being, Vonnegut is arguing that humankind’s choices are limited to pretending to live for a reason, or having little point to live at all. Man is left to stare ‘at all those X’s… [and see] no damn cat, and no damn cradle’ unless he engages his imagination[12].

In Bokononism, then, life’s events happen as they were meant to, regardless of an individual’s intentions. To put it bluntly, free will no longer poses a conscious risk if one pretends it is as relevant as ‘the free will of a piggywig arriving at the Chicago stockyards’[13]. Existentialists would, rather disparagingly, call this deliberate affixation of false meaning, and its subsequent avoidance of ‘anguish’, an act of ‘bad faith’ – ‘bad faith’ is one of translations provided by Mairet for the Sartrean term ‘mauvaise-foi’. Another is ‘self-deception’[14]. Bokonon refers instead to the choice to live by ‘foma’ – the harmless untruths that enable humankind to be ‘brave… kind… healthy and happy’[15]. As Vonnegut knows only too well, when given a choice between truth and happiness – an unbearable reality, or a bearable unreality – many individuals would choose the latter.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008)

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. by C. Macomber (London: Yale University Press, 2007), p.42)

[3] Jeremy Issacs & P. Downing, ‘Back Yard: Guatemala & Cuba 1954-1962’, in Cold War: For Forty-Five Years the World Held Its Breath (London: Abacus, 2008), p.220

[4] Robert K. Musil, ‘There Must Be More To Love Than Death: A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut’, in The Nation, 1980-08-02 (

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.13

[6] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.75

[7] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.174

[8] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.123

[9] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.91

[10] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.123

[11] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.1

[12] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.118

[13] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p.135

[14] Philip Mairet, ‘Introduction’, in Existentialism & Humanism by JP. Sartre, trans. by P. Mairet (London: Methuen, 2007), pp.1-20)

[15] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, prologue

Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (study notes)


According to Cordle, The Nuclear Age is the quintessential Cold War narrative – and, after my extensive studies, I’m inclined to agree. So, why is The Nuclear Age so significant? Put simply, it makes obsession with the constantly threatened but deferred possibility of nuclear war the overriding focus of the narrative.

In the alternative reality O’Brien constructs, it is 1995, but for the Cold War there is seemingly no end in sight. Instead of representing nuclear war or its aftermath (as Cordle argues the majority of narratives in the nuclear thriller genre do), O’Brien focuses instead on the ‘psychological impact of long, drawn-out nuclear suspense’. This could arguably be considered as critique of nuclear deterrence theory, which places individuals like William Cowling – O’Brien’s jellyfish of a protagonist – in a uniquely helpless position. Under nuclear deterrence theory, it is only a small number of people in the highest reaches of government who can make the ultimate decision to use atomic and hydrogen weapons. Without any say in the matter at all, the general public has to passively tolerate the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse. Thus, O’Brien’s novel chronicles the subversion of democracy and its psychological impact on the characters under the logic of nuclear deterrence. The novel consists of alternating episodes, moving the story from the present back through the past.

Throughout childhood (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), William’s adolescent fear is demonstrated by his obsession with a Ping-Pong table in the basement of his parents’ house, where he builds a ‘fallout shelter’ and hides to stave off his mounting nuclear panic.

‘When I was a kid, about Melindaʼs age, I converted my Ping-Pong table into a fallout shelter. Funny? Poignant? A nifty comment on the modern age? Well, let me tell you something. The year was 1958, and I was scared.’

The character acknowledges that his childhood fears could be rooted in the saturation of American culture with ideas of Civil Defence Theory.

‘Who knows how it started? Maybe it was all that CONELRAD stuff on the radio, tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, pictures of H-bombs in Life magazine, strontium 90 in the milk, the times in school when weʼd crawl under our desks and cover our heads in practice for the real thing.’

According to Guy Oakes, the US government intended to suppress irrational terror of nuclear war in the 1950s through a series of media coverage, scientific data and civil defence drills, and ‘foster in its stead a more pragmatic nuclear fear’ – one which, if properly channelled, encouraged the public support essential to nuclear deterrence. In fact, US propaganda and information control, minimising perceived dangers of radioactivity etc., continued from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki right up until 1955, when its government confirmed Ralph Lapp’s caution that radioactive fallout not only threatens civil defence, but it is also ‘a peril to humanity’. This is the reason that William lines his makeshift bomb shelter with pencils: he believes that the lead inside them will absorb radioactivity from the fallout. He is devastated to learn that the pencils actually contain graphite, and are thus no protection at all. According to the logic of nuclear deterrence, priority was given to national rather than human security. Rather than ‘waste’ money on a fallout shelter program, Nixon thought it more effective to ‘maintain the illusion of [passive] security through civil defence’ (quote from Oakes), leaving the government’s funding free to for the nuclear arms race – a more active nuclear deterrent. The little information provided to the public about self-protection via the construction of these shelters was inadequate. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that Williamʼs meagre, self-made fallout shelter is symbolic of the lax policy of civil defence and its limited budget: a policy which was not sufficient to ensure the safety of US citizens in the 1950s.

‘The shelter was no professional job – I knew that – but wasn’t it better than nothing? Better than twiddling your thumbs?’

Lifton offers an alternative analysis of the psychological impact of nuclear imagery upon people of Cowling’s generation. According to his findings, William in is the initial phase of processing the nuclear threat. This involves understanding the bomb as ‘a dreadful and mysterious entity… powerful enough to blow up the world’ – something which William demonstrates at a young age:

‘Even as a kid, maybe because I was a kid, I understood that there was nothing make-believe about doomsday. No hocus-pocus… It was real, like physics, like the laws of combustication and gravity.’

William also experiences the recurring dreams or fantasies about the destruction of neighbourhoods or entire cities, coupled with a need to seek shelter or sanctuary amongst the fire and chaos that Lifton describes (aided by Carey’s 1970s study), in the form of recurring ‘flashes’.

 ‘I was a witness. I saw it happen. In dreams, in imagination, I watched the world end.’

‘My dreams would be clotted with sirens and melting icecaps and radioactive  gleamings and ICBMs whining in the dark.’

This concept is reiterated by Mandelbaum, who argues that those born 1940-1950 arguably comprise ‘a nuclear-haunted generation’. This means ‘nuclear annihilation has become a more prominent theme in their dreams, fantasies and thoughts than in those… born before or afterward.’ After constructing the shelter, having a minor emotional breakdown in the library whilst swotting up on civil defence and then requesting a Geiger counter, his parents decide to send him to a psychotherapist. During his sessions with Chuck Adamson, he preaches the virtues of hobbies and safety; rocks and locked doors. William’s father eventually convinces him to dismantle his shelter by challenging him to a ‘no mercy’ match. After this comforting event, William’s fears recede to some degree and he is able to achieve a sense of normalcy:

‘For the next decade my dreams were clean and flashless. The world was stable. The balance of power held. It wasn’t until after college that those wee-hour firestorms returned.’

This corresponds with Lifton’s second-phase response to the stimuli of civil defence: the recession of conscious images for a period that may, subject to the individual, extend throughout childhood and adolescence. This is not to say that William’s fears disappear completely: he notes the feeling of living a ‘double life’ in October 1962, when political circumstances become ‘ticklish’: life continuing as normal, though it could all end in an instant.

‘October, 1962, and things got ticklish. How did we survive? We were civilised. We observed the traditional courtesies… Vacations were planned and promises were made… My mother vacuumed the living-room rug… [and] told me to buckle down to my schoolwork… We carried on. By looking loved ones in the eye. By not blinking when Kennedy said: the path we have chosen… is full of hazards, as all paths are.’

The question of ‘how and why we become politicised and depoliticised’ is another prominent and significant theme in The Nuclear Age. In the mid-1960s, when the United States was sunk in a morass of war, college student William pickets Peveson’s cafeteria with a sign that reads ‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’. Cowling argues that, through adolescence, the emotional paralysis caused by nuclear anxiety caused him to withdraw from society. He feels alienated from his peers due to their apparent lack of nuclear fear. His early attempts to engage with civil defence are firstly mocked and then perceived as ‘unhealthy’ by his parents. Consequentially as a teenager, he prefers the safety of solitude, rocks and imagined social encounters (particularly with the cheerleader, Sarah Strouch) to active political engagement. He becomes frustrated, though, by the contradictory information provided by US governmental representatives. The dual narrative provided by US political powers – the supremacy of the West’s destructive capacities, coupled with US citizens’ apparent safety – leaves him distrustful and uncertain of both politics and the bomb:

‘Why not come straight out with things? Bombs, for instance. Were they dangerous or not? Was the planet in jeopardy? Could the atom be split? Why wasn’t anyone afraid?’

However, Cowling’s re-politicisation leads him to re-join the social sphere – his written declaration in the Peveson cafeteria that‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’ is an invitation for similarminds to join him; to share in his state of fear. Although few of the regular students pay attention to his protest, after two months, William falls in with a group of anti-war activist students. This leads to the formation of the Committee, a group of New Left anti-war political activists: Ollie Winkler, Tina Roebuck, Sarah Strouch &, later, Ned Rafferty.Though all except William are in favour of using force to get people’s attention, it is Sarah who escalates their activities against the Vietnam War beyond college sit-ins and protests. She makes the seamless transition from cheerleader to terrorist, setting the Committee up as part of a militant ‘franchise’ – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror’.

In this novel, OʼBrien demonstrates the crisis of democracy present in the nuclear politics of the United States. Ulrich Beck argues that public confidence in formal politics inevitably erodes in a late modern society; instead, the citizens prefer direct political participation outside the formal boundaries of representative democracy. William’s peers are not as willing as him to accept the matter of the bomb, or the growing US presence in Vietnam, lying down. As the Committee progress, they begin to appropriate the ill logic of nuclear deterrence theory – determined to fight fire with fire; bombs with bombs; violence with violence. Ollie fervently argues that ‘[they] can’t make a revolution… without breaking a few legs. Sarah maintains that, in their form of terrorism, there is ‘no need to hurt people [but they must] give that impression’ if they want to be effective. Though it is Cowling who first declared that the bombs were ‘real’, he is uneasy about progressing beyond his ‘symbol’ of protest. Regardless, the Committee undertake ever more aggressive actions as their political involvement increases, including a midnight raid of the ROTC in their campus’ Humanities building, a staged blackout at a college football game and hijacking the campus radio station.

‘You think these idiots care about symbols? Fireworks, that’s all they understand… it’s a bad new age – symbols don’t make it’

This theme arises again later via Tina, after the Committee has become part of the ‘franchise’ – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror…independently owned and operated, but [with backup from] the Colonel’.

‘What about Nixon? Our chief, executor, he doesn’t grasp symbols. Power. That’s all he grasps… symbolise all you want – sit on your ass and sing If I Had A Hammer – but I’ll tell you something, somebody has to drive home the nails.’

Sarah uses her social position as cheerleader as a platform for her political ideals, leading to William’s comparison of cheerleading and terrorism:

 ‘Cheerleaders are terrorists. All that zeal and commitment. A craving for control. A love of pageantry and crowds and slogans and swollen rhetoric… the hot, energising rush of absolute authority: Lean to the left, lean to the right… fight – fight – fight! Don’t politicians use the same fierce exhortations? … During the spring of 1976, the parallels seemed uncanny.’

Matters quickly progress beyond control, as soon William is challenged to decide once and for all whether he is ‘in’ or not. He is forced into a decision – into politicisation – only when his draft notice arrives in late August, and he has to go into hiding. Reluctant to join the war, William Cowling decides to dodge the draft instead and goes on the run. The decision to do so inevitably means joining with the now politically radical Committee. The group hide out for a while before undertaking paramilitary training with two men, Nethro and Ebenezer Keezer. Ebenezer Keezer and Nethro operate a military franchise – ‘like Kentucky Fried Terror’ – and will stop at nothing in their actions to bring an end to the Vietnam War. The Committee members take part in a series of subversive operations: an ironic fact, seen as their cause is to stop the war and achieve peace. Though Cowling ran from home to escape the war, he finds himself nevertheless a part of it: having to think like a soldier, learning all the tricks of the trade, and simply fighting for another ‘side’.

‘Here… was everything Iʼd run from… you couldn’t run far enough or fast enough… [to] dodge the global dragnet [because] the killing zone kept expanding’

He and Sarah have very different reasons for joining the cause. She believes that ‘it couldn’t happen without [her]’ and feels that no matter how violent her actions become, she is automatically vindicated by moral justification (she is fighting to stop the fighting).

‘Two different value systems. [Sarah] was out to change the world, I was out to survive it. I couldn’t summon the same moral resources.’


 ‘I was running because I couldn’t envision any other way… safety, nothing else. Not honour, not conscience. All I wanted was a place to ride out the bad times.’

Through the irony of left-wing violent activism Cowling finds himself a part of, O’Brien mounts a challenge against nuclear deterrence, citing a profound contradiction in its logic: that the more one arms to protect oneself from others, the more threatened these others become, and the more prone they are to arm themselves in turn in order to protect their own security interests. He becomes increasingly alienated from the group, fantasising about the safety of his childhood bomb shelter and his father’s arms. The psychological link between safety and shelter recurs again here – arguably demonstrating a regression to the childish desire to ‘hide’ when afraid. As a result, his relationship with Sarah begins to break down as his lack of passion and commitment to both her and the cause frustrate her.

‘You want this nice happy world, all roses, except you get all squeamish when somebody goes out and tries to make it happen. The jellyfish mentality.’


‘You really do know. That’s the sin. Right and wrong – real perceptive. Bombs and jets and shit, you know it all. But there’s this neuter problem. Huff and puff but you can’t get it up – conscience-wise, pecker-wise – can’t perform.’

After a traumatic simulated commando drill at Sangua la Grande, in which William freezes, soils himself and regresses to a childlike state (burying himself in the sand), he is demoted to the role of ‘carrier pigeon’ and becomes detached from the political movement. He travels from place to place, from aeroplane to aeroplane, making drop-offs and trying to remain conspicuous. This brings him into contact with Bobbi, who consoles him after he suffers a recurrence of the flashes and panics. She gifts him with a poem (‘Martian Travel’), a blade of grass (which expresses her ‘deepest feelings’ for him) and the fantasy of her memory. William remains obsessed with her throughout his relationship with Sarah and his years in hiding, dreaming of building a life with Bobbi.

Lifton would argue that the recurrence of Cowling’s ‘wee-hour firestorms’ marks his transition into phase three. This is usually in response to an international or more personal scare – in this case, resulting from his traumatic experience at Sangua la Grande. In his absence, the group hijack a consignment cargo of M-16s and, later on, a nuclear warhead, becoming branded terrorists by the US government because of their own version of disarmament:

‘disarmament… no treaties or nothin’, we just flat-out disarmed the fuckers.’

William eventually leaves the group’s activism behind, with Chuck Adamson’s help. After the Vietnam War reaches its climax, the group go their separate ways. He and Ned Rafferty decide to dump the M-16s. They later, ironically, make their collective fortune mining uranium – going ‘from ban the bomb to boom the bomb’. William notes how uranium, in its natural state, offers all the safety of rocks and geology that reassured him in his adolescence. However, its use and purpose is inevitably questionable – used in all probability in the construction of nuclear warheads – and this places him in a difficult moral position. Sarah, though, argues that ‘guilt went out of fashion with culottes’.

Once he has legally cleared himself of desertion charges, he goes to Bonn chasing his fantasy woman – Bobbi – pursued by the ever-loyal and increasingly desperate Sarah. They follow the trail of broken hearts Bobbi has left behind her. Against all the odds, he and Bobbi quickly marry and settle down in the Sweetheart Mountains of Montana, leaving William’s political past behind them, much to Sarah’s dismay. They start a family and live happily until their domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Sarah Strouch and Ned Rafferty. Their domestic bliss remains undisturbed until Melinda reaches the age of ten, when William and his family are visited by Sarah Strouch and Ned Rafferty. They come bearing gifts and a nuclear warhead, stolen from the Committee members wanting to use it as a ‘demonstration’, and so need a place to hide. During their stay, Sarah’s health deteriorates (brought about by a form of encephalitis) and she dies. Ned re-joins the Committee, and later they are all violently killed in a military standoff (brought about by their possession of the stolen warhead). The loss of his friends leaves William traumatised. Now 49 years old, William is in the midst of a family breakup. All his friends are dead (apart from Chuck Adamson) and his marriage to Bobbi is failing after she disappeared for ‘two weeks and [took] her [contraceptive] diaphragm… with her’. He fears that she will leave him, just as she left behind the string of men he had to follow to find her.

‘That summer Bobbi disappeared. She was gone two weeks; her diaphragm went with her… It was like watching a hole. The diaphragm, I came to realise, was one of those objects whose absence reveals so much more than its presence.’  

‘I couldn’t sleep… for several months afterward… In bed, I watched her eyelids. I plotted tactics. Ropes and locks and dynamite. I felt sane and brutal. Dig, a voice whispered, but that came later.’

Using Lifton’s theory, one could reasonably argue that at this stage, William re-enters phase three of the psychological model, sparked on this occasion by a more ‘personal scare’: the ‘disintegration of [his] domestic situation’. His coping mechanism and method of containment is to begin digging a nuclear shelter in the backyard of his home, located in the Sweetheart Mountains near Fort Derry, Montana – insurance and protection against both nuclear war and the separation of his family. In response, his wife and daughter ‘quarantine’ themselves in the bedroom, a fact William is unable to comprehend.

‘A lockout, but why? I’m a pacifist, for God’s sake. The whole Vietnam mess: I kept my nose clean, all those years on the run, a man of the most impeccable nonviolence’

William and his wife argue through poetry. Being a poet, Bobbi chooses words as her weapon to spar with her husband. She writes him poems, using rich nuclear imagery to analyse their domestic problems. She threatens to ‘split’ the atom of their domesticity; the familial and matrimonial bonds holding them together, in a poem called ‘Fission’. In ‘The Balance of Power’, she uses his tightrope metaphor for political circumstances against him, applying it to him directly (’the high-wire man… [has] one foot in fantasy, one foot in fear’). Bobbi reminds him that even if he retreats to the furthest corners of space (becoming‘the Man in the Moon’) and ‘divorce[s]… planet Earth’, he will be ‘forever bound to [it] by laws of church and gravity’ – meaning he can escape neither science nor his societal responsibilities as a husband.

Cowling criticises his wife Bobbi’s love of ‘clean metaphors and clean language’, blaming her in ability to ‘process hard data’ like the reality of the bomb on her ‘artistic temperament’. He believes that she ‘hides’ behind art and finds ‘comfort in poetry’. He ridicules her for the presumption that beauty can serve as any kind of defence from ‘the facts of fission’. A polarity is created between art and science; between female and male; between Bobbi’s ‘clean metaphors’ versus William’s ‘messy’ realities (because ‘holes aren’t clean… safety can be very messy’). However, for all his protests otherwise, William is also a manipulator of symbolic language. He manned the college cafeteria armed with a single statement – ‘THE BOMBS ARE REAL’ – but showed reluctance to engage with the realities of political activism. It is in fact Sarah who forces his acknowledgement of the inadequacy of symbols in this ‘bad new age’, deeming his use of words ‘half-assed’. She notes William’s tendency to become ‘squeamish’ whenever their political endeavours progress beyond words to actions, and accuses him of having ‘a jellyfish mentality’. William uses scientific language to try and justify his perpetual cycle of retreat to his wife (and also to himself), trying to link the indisputability of science with his own more questionable decision to hide in a hole.

‘Bobbi doesn’t understand… I’ve named names… – the undisputable realities: …Poseidon, Trident, Cruise, Stealth, Minuteman, Lance, Pershing’

‘Uranium is no figure of speech… it’s hard and heavy and impregnable to metaphor. I should know, I made my fortune on the stuff… You can hold it in your hand. It has an atomic weight of 239.03; it melts at 1,132.30 degrees centigrade’

‘Ask this question: am I crazy? …ask the wall shadows at Hiroshima… and then listen hard… you’ll hear the soft drip of a meltdown, the ping-ping-ping of a submarine sonar, the half-life of your own heart’

He is aware that retreat – his need to ‘dig in’ – has become a perpetual cycle in his life: dodging bombs, and drafts, and feds, and live bullets in simulated commando drills, and the crushing burdens of reality. But for William, it is unavoidable; essential:

 ‘No metaphor, the bombs are real… what choice do I have? Just dig and dig.’

 ‘Call it what you want – copping out, dropping out, numbness, the loss of outrage, simple fatigue. I’ve retired. Time to re-trench. Time to dig in. Safety first.’

‘The year is 1968, and 1958, and 1995, and I’m here digging, I’m sane, I’m trying to save my life. What can one do? Safety first!’

‘When in doubt, dig. Abnormal, yes, but what’s the alternative? Plan a dinner party? Chalk it up to the existential condition? If that’s normal, I’m proud to call myself deviant.’

‘It’s an era of disengagement. We are in retreat, all of us, and there is no going back’

‘I couldn’t envision any other way… Safety… nothing else. Not honour, not conscience. All I wanted was a place to ride out the bad times’

William also begins to project an identity upon the hole that he is digging in the back yard – it becomes something he is able to converse with; be motivated by; that can reason with him.

‘The hole rumbles: I am Armageddon. I am what there is when there is no more. I am nothing, therefore all. I am the before and after “Safe?” … Yes, that too – I am safe.

It is as if his personality has undergone a split, a transformation, of schizophrenic proportions. The hole develops its own voice and identity; issuing its ever-insistent instruction to ‘dig’ – and, later, to detonate the charges with his family inside, burying them – and William is gradually convinced, despite the negative impact of his actions.

‘I don’t want [to detonate] but I can see it, as always… We will become the world-as-it-should-be… Here, she can’t leave me.

He believes that he can explain this decision rationally to them, and that they will understand the reasons behind his extreme actions and thank him in the end:

‘I’ll reason with them. I’ll explain that it’s love and nothing else… Bowl them over with my own sanity. I’ll show them photographs of an armed nuclear warhead – …I’ll do mathematics [and] slip the equations under the door.’

He begins to understand love – his obsession – in much the same way that Sarah used to, showing that ‘if necessary, [he too] will wipe out the world’ to keep Bobbi. A parallel between the political and domestic spheres arises here; between the things people are willing to do to retain love, and the extremities undertaken in the name of attaining peace. He drugs his wife and daughter, and transports them both to the hole (where they lay sleeping in hammocks, unaware of the danger). William rigs the charges, planning to bury himself and his family under the debris and contain them there forever, fossilised in their togetherness:

‘I don’t want [to detonate] but I can see it, as always… the wall shadows of Hiroshima, and Bobbi’s diaphragm… [but down] here, she can’t leave me. We will become the world-as-it-should-be.’

It is only when his daughter awakes unexpectedly – hearing him cackle ‘’Dynamite!’ in the hole’s voice – that he realises the insanity of his actions. He therefore decides to stop, and thus ignore the impending threats of reality in order to be happy:

‘One day it will happen… we will see flashes. One day, my daughter will die. One day, I know, my wife will leave me… I know this, but I [must] believe otherwise.’

‘I will trust the seasons. I will keep Bobbi in my arms for as long as she will stay… I will firm up my golf game and invest wisely and adhere to the conventions of decency and good grace… I will take my place  in the procession… to the grave, believing what cannot be believed:  that all things are renewable, that the human spirit is… infinite.’

‘[Even] when it finally happens… I will hold to the steadfast orthodoxy, confident to the end that E will somehow not quite equal mc2, that it’s a cunning metaphor, that the terminal equation will somehow not quite balance.’

This shows a final disregard of the ‘ephemeralism’ that William has experienced throughout his life: the feeling of pointlessness accompanying ultimately worthless pursuits and achievements.

‘Spider’ (a poem)




Time is like a spider

that wanders, out of sight.

Flickering and inconsistent,

inviting shadows to breed.


We soft, unmoulded children

all eyes, fists and elbows

try to capture it, but

manage only to cage ourselves.


To know its form is to step

outside, see its shape,

to allow Patience to catch

its breath, and die.


We forever envy the

lost knowledge, creeping

through the powdery fingers

of the infinite dead.

Dog (A Short Story)



Virginia always took the same route through this shithole: a weathered mining village that was forgotten after Thatcher and left to rot. Somehow, in this part of the neighbourhood, all the greys of the concrete, mud and sky seem to bleed together and combine in the rain. She hid underneath her hood. There was an element of grey about her, too: a cold deadness in those eyes, a separation reflected in them, in which she stood on one side and the rest of the world lined up against her… and yet, there was a strange wistfulness present, too.  As if Alice fell down the rabbit-hole and found Hell.

Her smile was abstract, obscure. When she did smile, there were only two variations, both outrageous in their forgery; one, more of a sneer, expressing near-evil pleasure derived from watching the world shit on someone else for a change (but even this is exaggerated – her savage joy is saved for special occasions); the other, her speciality, a humourless farce, a skin-merely-stretched-across-scaffolding smile – no genuine joy or twinkle of childish delight beaming out of her. Her soul was smog. In company, if you offered her a sweet, she would turn it down, declaring the sugar a dental attack and ridiculing the offer, even if you suspected that secretly her heart yearns for a friend, a real one, who she could maybe share with… maybe then, she could find pleasure in feeling the rough texture of the candy sugarlump against her tongue, or in slurping the sherbet from sachets. She doesn’t seem to believe that person exists, however, and so she would ensure her rebuke was scathing; the best form of defence is attack – or so she has learnt. She currently needed no Gobstopper; she probably believed she had nothing to say anyway.

She tried to envelope herself in the surrounding grey and fade into the background, but the disguise seemed to keep stealthily sneaking away from her, leaving her vulnerable to the rest of the world. So, silently, she walked, almost creeping: her shoes were scuffed and ill-fitting. She deliberately stepped on the cracks, in an attempt to break her mother’s back, but funnily enough when Virginia closed the front door behind her at 3:15 her mother’s voice still rung out, clear as anything despite the slur. She didn’t know, or care, what was said – she had stopped listening a long time ago…

She heard the dull, familiar clunk of a glass bottle which confirmed her suspicions. Her mother rarely had anything to say worth listening to when she’d had a couple (or more)… surely today was no different.  She climbed the stairs, her feet dragging along an aged, dirty-looking carpet the colour of terracotta, her toe scuffing on every step. She closed the bedroom door, stood silently for a few minutes with her back against the door, as she had done a thousand times before. She exhaled exaggeratedly, performing, it seemed, for the room. There was no one else to fool here. She looked over to the unmade bed and her teddies and stuffed animals, her only friends.

She was a young thirteen: there was only a small inclination that her breasts would one day grow, swell, bulge even, or that she would not have the fine blonde hair of a child on her legs forever, that one day it would grow dark and prickly, like thorns. A mess of dirty blonde hair seemed to be trying to escape her; it contorted and writhed in uneven waves that stuck out at random – there was a particularly aggressive flick of hair that always poked out behind her left ear that made her look like a scruffy, overgrown child, much younger than she was.

She had much older hands though; they seemed to have existed long before she did. The dirt wedged firmly under those cracked, splitting fingernails implied years of dedication to a filthy, tiring job, yet hers was the product of childish games and daydreams (her toy panda as the protagonist), played in the grit and dirt outside the house, in the wasteland her mother had the cheek to call a garden. She would lie on her belly for hours, sprawled on top of a couple of the scarce clumps of grass (zombie scarecrow hands reaching out of the dirt), playing make-believe, occasionally glancing up at the dereliction of the estate. These shitholes, these shacks-they-call-houses, were cramped, terraced prisons, standing toe-to-toe like awkward-feeling commuters sandwiched between each other on the rush-hour train. Virginia wouldn’t have minded an elephant in the room, but wished desperately for the drunken parent in the lounge to vanish. She could never stand to be in the house for long when that train-wreck was home.

Trying to ignore drunken snores from downstairs, she took her broken-legged, pitiful little panda out of her pocket, sat it in the palm of her hand, then offered her captive an invitation to escape through the open window. As always, though, the panda remained still. Virginia was glad; she had always been fond of it. It was familiar, reliable. It might not win many beauty contests, but then again, neither would she. She had always thought of herself as awkward-looking (not ugly, just disproportioned), something that her peers had no qualms with pointing out on regular occasions. Still, she had never taken to make-up, high heels and pretty dresses in the way other girls her age had. The contrast between her and those pastel-clad princesses did not work well for Virginia. She had shown no real desire to paint herself like a geisha girl in an attempt to attract one of the sweaty, clumsy handed, pimple-riddled man-boys she had to share a classroom with daily… not that any of them would try that with her. She was more of a game, a sport, to tease, to laugh at. One of them had tried to undo her bra through her t-shirt in double Maths one day whilst balancing precariously on two legs of his wobbling chair: she had spun round in her seat, looking him full in the face for the very first time, before slamming her tightened fist down heavily on his supporting hand, sending him sprawling. For a moment, there had been a spark behind her eyes, a savage enjoyment – you could imagine her pulling the wings off a fly with much the same expression on her face. She struggled to trust anyone.

The train-wreck was throwing up; the sound clattered insensitively up the stairs. It was usually Virginia’s job to ensure something suitable was underneath her drooling mouth, but the thought of entering the place that foul creature had inhabited for the last three days (she hadn’t come to bed or left the house or gone for a piss or anything – the throwing up was the only proper indication heard that guaranteed she was not dead) would make anyone’s skin crawl. So, instead, she exited stage left – out into the garden, into her daydream world.

She dusted herself down, illogically, before she took up her spot and settled her elbows into pre-worn dents in the ground, ready to watch the nothingness of life happen. She watched neighbours walk past one another and neglect to say anything, avoiding eye contact all the while. She watched a group of six or seven children, of varying ages, playing a game with constantly-mutating rules, seeming to be based on ‘Tag’. It never crossed her mind to ask if she could play with them: she had lived with the assumption that the answer would always be ‘no’, delivered in acidic tones, for much longer a time than a child should have. She lay there, observing passively, saying nothing, walking her beloved panda back and forth across a make-believe Saharan desert, still, like a lizard baking in the sun – not much chance of that here, though. The clouds made a mockery of sunshine; that poor fireball didn’t stand a chance.

The shouts and squeals of the game intruded on Virginia’s daydream and brought her back to Earth with a bump. Mrs. Otterman emerged from behind one of the countless corners that led to a scruffy little jitty linking to Barker Grove, half-dragged by a yappy little terrier. Little Jaffa was her pride and joy, with his tufts of uneven fur and slightly mismatched eyes. She struggled with her bulging shopping bags as the dog jerked her hand excitedly between lampposts; their tatty canvas stomachs could barely hold the treats they were laden with. Mrs. Otterman had always been an indulgent woman, even in her youth, but since the death of her husband her self-pity had ballooned and taken over. Every day, rain or shine, Virginia would see her carting this collection of cakes and chocolates and biscuits back from the little corner shop down the way, led by Jaffa. Virginia had once offered to help her carry some of her shopping but had been rudely dismissed. Since then, Mrs. Otterman deliberately looked past her in the street, as if Virginia had simply turned to vapour and no longer existed. If the terrier sniffed happily at her feet she would jerk his leash and make him yelp. Virginia hated her for it: she had decided to sneak him dog biscuits whenever she got the chance.

A couple of the children, lost in their game, strayed into the saggy, waddling woman’s path. Items from her shopping were knocked to the floor in the collision: two apple turnovers, squelching and full of cream, fell into the muck and fag-ash and bubblegum, meeting the urban decoration of the pavement’s surface. A lone orange rolled into the gutter. The children laughed. It was a cruel sound. They did not help the woman gather her items. The smallest of the three boys, dressed undoubtedly in an elder sibling’s hand-me-downs, kicked the orange as far as he could down the potholed, twisting road winding out of sight, leading to places different in name, and yet exactly the same. The skin of the orange ruptured as it met his shoe – with a wallop it was gone, save the guts and mush left smeared on his sneaker. Jaffa, joyful, barking, leapt after it; Mrs. Otterman’s loose, distracted grip on the leash was easily broken. He dashed into the road, focused on his prize, unaware of his surroundings.

The impact was quick but painful. The culprit, a neglected-looking Ford Escort with flaking paint, in the familiar red of a post-box, its front bumper held together with duct tape, flattened the dog without difficultly. The noise it made was sickening. Virginia tried to protect her ears from the sound. Then, motionless, she watched its paw spasm in its final moment of life. Mrs. Otterman howled like a dog, over and over, knelt in the blood beside him. The kids ran away, horrified. Virginia lay still and watched silently. The only indication that she had witnessed the event was a tell-tale crease of her forehead and defensive hand moved to cup her beloved panda. In her mind, she replayed the crunch: it contrasted starkly with the happy yelps it had made (and it was an ‘it’ to her now, now it was void of life) just moments before. She lay unmoved. A single tear was shed from those eyes, less than you would expect from a child her age, but they looked deader than ever. After a while, she rose and dusted herself off with unnecessary focus, ignoring the increasingly desperate cries emitting from Mrs. Otterman.

Virginia re-entered the prison house, her feet dragged behind her, and walked dejectedly inside, up to her bedroom, older somehow. She told no one… who could she tell? Dutifully, robotically, she reached into her worn rucksack to retrieve her exercise books and started her homework. She did not notice until later that in the corner of each page she had drawn a dead dog.

Chapter 1, from ‘The Light Station’ (a novel)


ONE: An Uninvited Guest


The pavement was greasy beneath Caesar’s feet as he made his way across town. As soon as the first raindrop had touched his nose, he had known it would be better to avoid the Underground – its rickety, old tunnels would already be full to bursting, and the subsequent delays from all those extra passengers were more than he could bear. Instead, he had turned up his collar, deciding to take a shortcut through the backstreets. Raindrops hit the hot slab of concrete beneath him, fizzing like fried egg. He knew he needed to get out of the rain, and fast –by cutting through the exterior courtyard of In Vino Veritas (an exclusive winery in London’s lower East side) he saved himself ten minutes, and made it to his destination at a little before nine.          

Charlie’s was a bare brick and boards sort of bar; a rarity these days, and one of the few places Caesar really felt at peace. There were no stools, only a colourful collection of pleather armchairs which had been reclaimed, lovingly patched up and generously stuffed by the owner. Strangers shared tables and found friends. Each of the locals had their own pitcher with their name on it (which was the same size regardless of whether they drank real spirits, synthetics or safeale). Best of all, there was no projector, only an archaic 3Di model TV with half of the pixels burnt out and a voice activation system which would only register Charlie’s voice if he emphasised each syllable at great volume and in sarcastic detail.          

Caesar and Charlie’s friendship had been cemented by a love of old things, though Charlie frequently swore he’d replace the old TV with a state-of-the-art projector with built-in ATS (Advertising Targeting Software). It was an empty threat, Caesar knew. Charlie hated those pesky little hologram ads almost as much as he did.          

The old man’s face split into a grin at the sight of him. “Caesar, m’boy! Good to see you! Sit down, sit down, and get that coat off too, you’re drenched. What, did you swim here?” he boomed in a voice as coarse as his beard. Charlie was a giant, grizzly thing but he laughed often and loudly, so much sometimes that he shook the tables. “Now, what can I get my favourite customer?”          

“I was just after a couple of bottles of something special, to take away, you know.”          

Charlie did his best to look hurt. He loved this game, and was good at it, too. “You’re not staying? Oh, Caesar, you wound me. Here I was thinking that you’d come all this way to see me…”          

“Yes, yes, and now you know I only want you for the contents of your top shelf,” Caesar chuckled amiably. “Alright, old man, you’ve twisted my arm – I’ll have a quick drink and then I’m out of here.”          

Charlie beamed. “Good to hear! It would be rude to refuse a drink from an old friend. After all, it’s got your name on it.” His favourite joke, told every visit without fail. Caesar loved him for that. “Now, what can I get you?”          

“Surprise me.”          

“Ah, yes. Charlie knows best.” He rubbed his hands together, like a man preparing for hard graft. “Let me see what I can do.”          

Charlie began removing bottles from his collection with ceremonious flair, wiping the dust from their labels, giving each one a long, intense stare.          

The Great Inquisitor at work.          

Every so often, he would unscrew the cap of one and inhale deeply, swilling the contents around to release the aroma. No two bottles were the same, in size, age, colour or content. Charlie often boasted that his stock was completely unique and came from all corners of the world. More likely it had come from the black market. It didn’t really matter to Caesar either way, so long as it was available for purchase.          

When he returned to Caesar’s table, Charlie had decided upon a portly red wine, deeply spiced and warm to the tongue. It was delicious. When Charlie offered him another, he did not feel inclined to refuse. Soon came the third pitcher, the fourth, then the fifth, all of them with his name on it. Before Caesar knew it, it was closing time and he was agreeing to a lock-in with a few of Charlie’s most devout locals (his firm ‘favourites’). There was Macmillan, the philosophical banker (who insisted that drinking his money away only served to prove his dedication to the capitalist ideal), Katya (an old widow who never seemed to leave), and Pond (a deadbeat crook with a stub of a nose and eyes that lingered for too long). He knew what Charlie saw in the first two – Kat’s legs opened for him at a word, and the banker had bottomless pockets – but had never understood why he kept Pond so close. He appeared as good a lapdog as any; small, slow and grateful for any attention. Still, there was something unsettling about the way he watched the old man.          

Charlie chose a table for the five of them closest to the window and opened it a fraction. Autumnal huffs and puffs teased patterns into contraband smoke as they talked and drank the night away.          

“Where better to be?” cried Macmillan in the hazes of alcoholic camaraderie, when the subject of the passing hours arose, “and who better to pass the time with than Charlie? To Charlie!!”          

“To Charlie!” they agreed in unison.          

“But in all seriousness, though –”          

Everything Macmillan said was ‘in all seriousness’. Caesar wondered if he started all his jokes like that. In all seriousness, Doctor, I think I’m a banana, when should I split? Why did the chicken, in all seriousness, cross the road? And did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Arabian and the Chinaman who walked (in all seriousness) into a bar?           

“– Tonight is truly a beautiful thing. You know why? Because it can never happen again. I mean, sure, we could have another lock-in on another night, but it could never be tonight’s lock-in, now could it? No. Tonight is a one-time deal. That’s the beauty of reality. We’re all just so fucking linear, you know?” Macmillan stood and raised his pitcher, swaying enough to spill a little of its contents down the rather fetching waistcoat he was wearing. “Take this drink, for example – and may I say what a fine drink it is, too –”          

That earned another chorus of “To Charlie!”          

“This drink can only be enjoyed once, then it will be gone forever and all that will remain of it is my memory of its sweetness.”          

“Too true,” crooned the widow. She had clearly drank far too much, and Macmillan’s words had made her uncharacteristically solemn. She gazed into the murky depths of her pitcher as if mourning its passing.             

“And your point is…?”          

Caesar didn’t really care to hear the answer, but old Katya actually looked as if she might cry, and whatever bullshit Macmillan came out with had to be better than enduring that.          

“Only this, my brother: that mortality defines us, and is responsible for the fleeting nature of our entire world.”          

What a prick. But Caesar could only sigh, smile and smoke his cigarette. They were both guests under Charlie’s roof, after all.

“An’ what’s that got t’ do with anythin’?” Pond scowled, looking confused. “We were talkin’ ‘bout wine. Wine’s not alive.”          

“On that, I beg to differ,” interjected Charlie, winking and tapping the tip of a nose already rosy from consumption.          

“Still…” Pond’s pockmarked little potato-face screwed itself up in concentration. “We were jus’ sayin’ how nice it is t’ be having a drink tonight wit’ ol’ Charlie here, and now you’ve gone an’ ruined it, talkin’ ‘bout the whole world dyin’. ‘Ere, you’ve even gone an’ upset poor Katya.”          

The widow assented to that with a loud, undignified sniff.          

Macmillan looked around, appealing to the others. “Doesn’t the wine taste all the sweeter because of the very fact that it does not last? We are all born and we will all die. There is no eternity for us. That truth can sometimes be painful, I grant you, but is unavoidable nonetheless. What matters is what we do with ourselves in between. We are all given the opportunity to make our mark upon this world: to build, to consume, to make children, make memories… and history too, if we are brave enough for it.”                

They sat quietly then, each lost in contemplation. Caesar thought of his historical namesakes and wondered if they had known they would be remembered even now. He avoided thinking about whether anyone would remember him.          

“Why can’t the ones we love live forever?”          

The voice that broke the silence was queer and thin, and it took a moment for everyone to realise that it was Katya who had spoken. She was a Romani gypsy by birthright and her voice usually sounded deep and throaty, lusty even, just like she was. Though they were not really close, Caesar had heard her carrying on with her barmates on countless occasions. She was always jovial, quick-witted and generous with both her banter and her company. Whenever she laughed, she reared her head back like a horse, shaking her spidery mane of black and white and grey. The woman sat beside them now had the same ornate jewels crammed onto her fingers, wore the same charms and woven-wool dress as the fiery little widow, and yet seemed like a stranger by comparison. She looked shrunken, frail and desperate.          

Hollow, Caesar thought, she looks hollow.          

Charlie knelt at her feet, enclosing both her hands in his with undisguised affection. Bent in half, he was still bigger than she was.               

“Forever would be a curse, sweet one,” he told her gently. “A good man earns the right to his rest, you know that. He is at peace now. So should you be. He would not want you to cry.”          

She nodded, her eyes still brimming with sadness. Soon after, she excused herself from the party. She did not bother to don her coat or shoes. Caesar could only assume she had retreated upstairs to warm old Charlie’s bed for him. And who can blame her? It’s a bad night to be sleeping alone. What is it they used to say? If you can’t be with the one you love…          

“I’m sorry, Charlie,” said Macmillan in hushed tones to the hulk of a man sitting beside him, “I did not mean to upset the lady.”          

“She’s no lady, lad… and she’ll be alright by morning, you’ll see.” Charlie patted his shoulder wearily and shuffled off to find a fresh bottle for them.                 

“Although,” Macmillan added once Charlie was down in the cellar, “women are far too emotional when it comes to death, don’t you think?”          

“Women are too emotional when it comes t’ everythin’,” Pond agreed with a cackle.          

Caesar was surprised – Pond’s concern for Katya seemed to have evaporated once Charlie was out of earshot. Fickle bastard. “She only got upset because she was remembering her husband. That’s understandable, isn’t it? Maybe she misses him.”          

Macmillan smiled. “Did you know her old man well, my brother?”          

Caesar shook his head. He didn’t know the man’s name, truth be told, never mind his character. “Why, did you?”          

“I had that pleasure, yes. His family fell on tough times a while back and I made sure he got approval for a loan he needed. I just pulled a few strings, nothing major, but he never forgot. He always had time for me after that. Used to get me a drink in whenever our paths crossed. He was a man of the old ways: well-liked, hardworking, charming in a gruff sort of way, you know the type. He knew how to scratch your back if you’d scratch his, if you get my meaning.”          

“He sounds like a good man,” said Caesar, thinking of Charlie.          

“Yes, a lot of people thought so. He believed a woman’s place was to obey, though… and, well, you’ve heard Katya when she gets going.” Macmillan sighed. “It was hardly a fairytale marriage. He used to beat her every time she overstepped the mark. It didn’t matter where they were or who was there. I even heard it told that he punched her in the face at his sister’s wedding.”          

Caesar didn’t know what to say. “Th-that’s… awful.”          

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Macmillan chuckled, “Katya gave as good as she got. She’d call him every name under the sun and didn’t care who heard her.”          

Pond chimed in. “They wer’ always at it. She wa’nt afraid t’ get physical, neither. Why, I remember seein’ ‘er and ‘er fella goin’ at it in this very bar, now that you mention it. Goin’ back a fair few years, mind.”          

“Too true. He had a rather distinctive scar on his cheek, and if I recall correctly, it was a gift from his darling wife.”          

Caesar was bewildered. “But then, why – ?”          

“– Didn’t she leave? A fair question. Why does any woman stay?”          

A series of images flashed unbidden through Caesar’s mind. His mother, frail and shivering on her deathbed, smiling to the end; the telephone ringing, and the subsequent tears that she would try her best to hide; his father returning home covered in the stink of alien perfume, dribbling gold and apologies with the ease of a man who knows he will always be forgiven; the uneaten dinners; the non-wrapped, hastily bought presents. Years and years of feeble excuses. A modest funeral.          

“I mean, why does she still cry for him, after all this time? Why isn’t she relieved it’s over? And why did Charlie call him a good man?”          

“Ah,” Macmillan smiled, “now we’re getting to the crux of it. It’s what I was saying earlier. Time is a funny thing, my brother, and so is nostalgia.” He walked around the table slowly, deliberately, and helped himself to one of Caesar’s cigarettes. “Have you ever noticed how the beauty of an object can increase solely because of your distance from it? Well, of course you have,” he snorted as he struck a match, “Charlie happened to mention that you share his fondness for old things.”          

Caesar gave him what he hoped was an intimidating look. He wasn’t exactly happy about this act of overfamiliarity, but knew as well as Macmillan that he was helpless to do anything about it. “History’s one thing. Distance is something else entirely.”          

“Oh, is it now? Are you certain of that?”          

Caesar hesitated for a moment.          

“Exactly. Think of it this way – if we were to step outside now and start walking, the land behind us would get further and further away. After a while, it would be but a speck on our horizon. Only then could we look over our shoulders and sigh ‘ah! London! How beautiful you were!’ and forget about all the disappointments we left behind.”          

Pond nodded eagerly, like a child being told a bedtime story. With Charlie gone, he had latched onto Macmillan with the ease of a leech locating a new source of blood.          

“It is the same, in a way, with the record of history, is it not?” Macmillan gave them both a crooked smile, taking measured puffs on his cigarette. Caesar noticed that he wasn’t inhaling – it was all just for effect. “For what is history, if not a recording of the thoughts and deeds of old, dead men? We look upon them in the same way we would view that faraway city – from a distance, with all their foulness forgotten. That’s all time is, my brother. It’s just another place to stand and enjoy the view. It can’t heal all wounds, but it can put a bit of space between you and the smell.”          

Caesar wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he lit a cigarette for himself and turned his chair towards the window, smoking and waiting in silence. When Charlie finally returned from the cellar he had whiskey (“An excellent vintage,” he assured them) and the topic changed. The hours soon began to blur. Caesar’s head was spinning when he finally left the bar and when he checked his watch, he groaned. It was already five-thirty. He was due at work in two hours.          

All the coffee in the world can’t help me now.             

True to his word, Charlie had slipped him a package on his way out the door, the contents giving their usual promising clink as they changed hands. Caesar kept the bundle close to his chest, hands sweating and slipping on the cheap plastic wrapping.          

The streets were an ugly thing at this time of morning. Dense, rotting cubes of condensed garbage lined the pavement, awaiting the first morning refuse collection. Half the stacks had already been split apart and ransacked by urban foxes and tomcats, and now starved gangs of near-skeletal pigeons were rooting hopefully for anything edible that remained. The stink was palpable, despite persistent rain. Caesar kept his head down and did his best not to stand in puddles.          

By the time he finally reached his apartment building, he was shivering despite the heat, and the outside pockets of his parka were fat with rainwater. It took him another ten minutes to get inside his abode as his sneezes kept interrupting the retinal scan. Caesar cursed it aloud, inadvertently activating the voice recognition override he had forgotten about, and fell inside in a heap as the door supporting his weight suddenly gave way.          

Hey, honey, I’m home.          

Caesar eyed the empty apartment from his new position on the floor. Upside-down Putin sneered back at him contemptuously, but Caesar didn’t mind – he was glad to see him. He kicked off his shoes and his wet jeans, then stretched his limbs out across the hardwood, grateful for such a smooth solid surface to lay his head upon. His package sat forgotten on the floor beside him. Outside, the sun had begun extending tentative fingers upward, outward, feeling out a safe path through the jagged edges of the city skyline. Caesar could feel its progress as the warmth spread across his face. He didn’t think he had ever been so comfortable. When his home holophone suddenly began bleeping, he didn’t want to move.           Unfortunately, his presence was registered by internal sensors and after a short delay the call connected automatically.      

 “Hello? M–Mr Minnox, are you there? Hello?” An unidentified voice addressed the unoccupied lounge, formal but anxious.          

Caesar bolted upright and staggered in the direction of the sound. He was unaware of how shrunken and awkward he looked, dishevelled and bare-legged, still in his raincoat.          

“Who’s there?” He rounded the corner and found out for himself. “Oh, it’s you. I thought I told you not to call me.”          

In the centre of the room stood the head and torso of a plump, balding hologram. It was intensely lifelike, right down to the crumbs on the tie and wayward nasal hairs: clearly a real-time datafeed. This sort of communication had become commonplace now. The twenty-third century equivalent to having a gossip over the garden gate, Caesar thought. Not that people can afford gardens anymore.          

“I’m sorry to contact you at home, Mr Minnox, but I have important news regarding your father’s estate. Can I transmit the file?”          

Caesar sighed. “If you must.”          

A pop-up holoscreen sprung up in response, inches from his nose. He sighed and raised his extended thumb towards it. After a second or so of scanning, his personal details began to rattle across the screen in an endless blur of text. He had been Recognised.                  

The screen went blank for a moment. Then he saw the words he had been dreading.          

“Henceforth reads the last will and testament of Minas Theodore Minnox,” Caesar read aloud. “I leave the sum of all my worldly possessions and tangible assets to my biological son, Caesar Minnox” – of course, there’s no one left but me now… who else was he going to leave it to? – “to be paid to him in monetary form upon completion of the sale of my estate. The sum is approximately… holy shit!”          

He had known that his father was rich, but he had never suspected that he was that rich. He didn’t know whether to feel angry or pleased; robbed or victorious.          

He let her rot in that goddamned house…          

“Mr Minnox?”          

Caesar realised that the head and torso of the solicitor hovering a few feet from him was now surveying him with some concern, and felt a sudden desire to laugh. He was drunk, half-naked, and had just inherited more money than he could ever hope to have earned in a lifetime. Which, Caesar mused, makes it really hard to give a shit about the opinions of a man wearing half of his breakfast as an accessory.            

Instead of laughing, he asked the obvious question. “So, when are you planning on handing over this obscene amount of money?”          

“Well, that was why I’m calling – to let you know that it’s been credited to your account. I processed it myself this morning. I just wanted to let you know that I was closing the file. You won’t be hearing from me anymore.”          

The man hesitated for a moment, perhaps hoping Caesar would say something. When he didn’t, he looked disappointed. “Right. OK then. I will leave you to your day. You’re clearly very… busy.”          

His face soured; an expression Caesar couldn’t help but mirror. “Clearly. How very astute of you. Can’t be standing around chatting about nothing. Goodbye, Mr Solicitor.”          

“My name is –“          

Too late.          

Caesar karate-chopped the air between them, severing the datafeed connection, and the solicitor vanished before he could finish his sentence.          

Silence fell. Caesar stood alone, his back to the warmth of the window, trying to decide what to do next. First, he took care of the obvious. Two minutes of investigation confirmed what the solicitor had said. Seeing that amount of zeroes in his credit allowance made his head spin, and he had to stagger off and mix himself a drink before he felt steady again (Gin, with a fresh slice of cucumber and a splash of tonic – just what he needed). Good old Charlie, he thought, shuffling back towards his tattered, misshapen sofa, ice clinking in the tumbler he was nursing on every left step. Maybe I’ll finally settle my tab with the old man. That’ll make his fucking day – I must owe him a fortune by now.          

He swapped his coat for a fleeced dressing gown and slippers, and proceeded to make himself comfortable. After a moment’s thought, he went back to the kitchen and returned with the bottle of gin. He set his home communications status to ‘DND’. The next few hours passed in a comfortable haze: Caesar drank and smoked cigarettes, tapping ash into a giant ornamental seashell near his feet. He listened as the city geared up for a new day. Honking horns and guttural engines took their place in the Great London City Orchestra alongside the nasal whines of distant motorbikes, the hammering of workmens’ drills, the boisterous hollering of exiting schoolchildren and the barks of their lonely dogs and mothers (both insisting that they return home to them, safe and soon). He could hear streets full of people chattering, and knew without looking down that almost none of them would be talking to each other – instead, each would have a top-of-the-range device pressed to their ear as if their life depended on it, talking to someone who was somewhere else entirely.          

He thought about calling work; about storming into the office, late and unapologetic for once in his life. He imagined saying the words “I quit”, playing the scene over and over in his head. Each new glassful spawned a fresh version, in which he became wittier, stronger and increasingly attractive to the opposite sex (in one case, sweeping Ms Oswald – who, despite her height and huskiness of voice, Caesar had always found quite alluring – into the sort of kiss that only existed in those archaic, dusty Technicolor motion pictures that his mother had been so fond of). However, none of these visions inspired him to move, or reconnect his holophone and make the call. In his state of blissful drunkenness, he decided instead to log onto the Web – something he normally avoided (unless, of course, he had money to spend).          

“Welcome back, Caesar,” sighed the operator, in her usual state of ecstasy. “It’s been too long. We’ve missed you. Are you ready to connect?”          

Caesar nodded his head a fraction, but it was enough. In the blink of an eye, a 32-screen live action hologram built itself around him like a cage, woven from tiny fibres of blue-green light. Each individual square contained a different datafeed which vied for his attention.          

It took him 172 seconds to spend his first million. He was led through a digital bazaar where he wanted everything he saw. ATS meant that capitalism now operated mostly on an unconscious level, and so consumers no longer sought out products in the old way – there was no need for that. Anything you could possibly imagine and more was available for purchase, and you didn’t have to go looking for it – it found you. It was already waiting for you. It knew that you wanted it before you did.           Caesar bought rare printed first editions of Dietovsky, Marlowe, Heidegger and Kant; bootlegged mp3s from last century’s Russian garage/punk revival, thought to have been lost forever to the subsequent Government Suppression Initiative; memorabilia from the British Space Exploration Mission to Mars in 2114; an all-white baby Grand piano; a set of ornate bone-china teacups. He found a man who claimed to possess an original Van Gogh and Banksy’s Telephone Box and said he would be willing to part with them if the price was right. Another claimed that for just a few billion credits (a bargain, really) he could put individuals in direct communication with the one true God (although he explicitly avoided stating which of the many Gods on offer he meant). Safe to say, there were no money-back guarantees. Cynicism helped him steer his focus away from those two windows.          

He found manufacturers of hand-stitched clothes and a conversion device that would let him watch old films, playing formats long since out of use – digital video discs and magnetic tapes and even the old reels of film they used to use in the cinema houses, before they went out of fashion. He stumbled across bookstore after bookstore after bookstore, and bought more volumes than he possibly had space for. When he spotted a little paper notepad, bound in laser cut purple suede and complete with a matching click-top pen, he snapped that up too. He couldn’t recall a time that he had ever written on a piece of paper using ink. The closest he had ever come were novelty, digitised versions – a digital stylus made to look like a scroll, a peacock-feather quill disguising a digital pen, that sort of thing. This was real paper, and it came with real ink. The thought of owning it made him feel warm inside.

Ha! Like a true capitalist. Macmillan would be proud.

And yet, as he thought that, he knew that what he was looking for could not be found within the electronic matrix of the Web; that id party-house – he was looking in all the wrong places. It was just that he didn’t know where else to look.

‘Five Minutes’ (a response to Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’)


Five Minutes

Don’t put me in the ground just yet, I beg you
Let me revel in my five short minutes of fame
Give them a moment to speak my name
And remember what little thing they loved best.

They caked my face in youth, so don’t turn away
Before they close the lid, lay your eyes on me
For this is the one time I will not age, you see
Soon you’ll forget how I looked when I could breathe.

Refer to all my faults in the present tense
Don’t summarise or bathe me in sentimentality
That turns me into the stuff of hazy memory
But in brutal truths I can live forever.

Pity flowers ensure my door is at its darkest.
To turn up draped in black and sympathy
Just mocks my absence from the party
Honour me who laughed loudest, but not last!

Remember this day like I had attended
See me swiping wasps away from my sandwich
Badmouthing the weather in colourful language
Like I was at the picnic, not inside the box.

And in the years that stretch before you, instead of your tears
Bring your smiles to my grave, and long tales of good years.


See the original poem by Wallace Stevens here: