Slug

I love conspiracy theories. I think they appeal to the intensely human desire to think that SOMEONE is in charge, even if it’s someone malicious.

The idea that NO-ONE is at the wheel and things just HAPPEN for reasons no-one will ever be able to fully comprehend is obviously terrifying to some people.

I also love making fun of the news business, as seen. So, two great tastes that taste great together.

[The people who run the world are beaten to the punch]


Illuminati Member One-Two-Three was sitting at her desk in her office, casually rubber stamping the requisition forms for that month’s chemtrail supply order when bursting through her door came Illuminati Member Four-Five-Six. He didn’t even knock.

“Excuse you!” She said, jokingly, but her smile faded as she saw the look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” She asked. He held up a newspaper and she blinked. Something of a charming anachronism in her eyes she was told that a lot of people still read them, a fact she found hard to comprehend. Quite why four-five-six would have one she didn’t know.

Because if you think about it, reading the news was a bit pointless when you controlled everything that was happening in it.

“You need help with a crossword? What?” She asked, not getting it. Face still as grave as it had been from the moment he stepped in four-five-six handed it over to her. One-two-three took it, none the wiser as to what any of this was about.

“Look at it, what jumps out at you?” Four-five-six asked. Rolling her eyes one-two-three figured she’d humour him for now.

She took in the front page. She saw doom, she saw gloom. She saw reports of just about everything getting worse. She saw articles about celebrities doing things that weren’t actually particularly notable but were reported on because the person doing it was notable. She saw instances of people being offended by things that had been done or written specifically to offend them. She an awful lot about murders, and war and disasters. It all rung a bell.

“This…this is project Bluebird, isn’t it? That thing they were trialling to, uh, ‘foster a general and all-consuming sense of apathy and despair in and amongst the population’? Who gave it the greenlight? I didn’t think it was finished,” she asked, handing the paper back.

It wasn’t her department, but you hear about these things. Someone’s high-falutin idea about adjusting public consciousness by restricting and controlling their awareness of the world to try and inculcate a feeling of utter helplessness. More of a pet-project than anything else, at least from what she’s heard. Still a cute idea by the standards of some of the other things being worked on.

Four-five-six took the newspaper without looking, his eyes not leaving her face.

“No-one gave it the greenlight. This isn’t us,” he said, dropping the newspaper onto the desk where it fell with a soft thump. There was a pause. One-two-three wondered if perhaps he had misheard him,

“What?” She asked, hoping she was missing something obvious. The alternative was too distressing to consider. Four-five-six’s face remained dour.

“This is just happening. This is just what they’re doing now. This is what shifts papers. We did not do this.”

“What do you mean we didn’t do this? We do everything,” one-two-three scoffed, folding her arms.

“Not this,” four-five-six said, beginning to lose patience with her refusal to accept this rather simple statement. His sympathy was roused however by the very obvious transition she was going through from ‘bewildered confusion’ to ‘legitimate concern’. He understood how she felt. The whole point was that they had something to do with everything. That was kind of their deal.

“B-but…but how…” One-two-three said, the stammer she’d long-since thought banished creeping back as she reached her desk for the squishy thing she squished to reduce stress. It had sat neglected for a long time before this.

“They’re looking into it. Right now though it just seems like this is something the people in charge of newspapers arrived at naturally. They did all this on their own. It seems to work, from what I’m told. I mean, print is still dying but this is apparently constitutes life-support; people buy this stuff. God knows what it’s doing to the morale of the population and the quality of public discourse but,” four-five-six said with a shrug.

He personally found the human fascination with grim, depressing stories a little confusing and inherently unhelpful, but was aware there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it at his level in the organisation. One day maybe, but not yet. Meanwhile one-two-three continued falling to pieces.

“If…if the…if t-they can d-do this to themselves t-then…then…” she lowered her voice, looking around to check for eavesdroppers. A futile gesture in a building that had its walls basically insulated with bugs and other miscellaneous listening devices, but still well-meaning. Once this check was completed she finished her sentence:

“Do you think they’re going to make anyone redundant?” She asked. One-two-three’s eyes narrowed and his sympathy vanished at once. Another thing he found confusing was this sort of rampant, self-serving attitude in the face of problems that affected society as a whole. Again, not something he could do much about.

“No, I don’t think so. I think they’re actually bringing in more people to look into this,” he said. Almost at once one-two-three brightened, the death-grip she’d had on her squishy thing loosening and the beginnings of a smile coming back to her face.

“Really?” She asked.

“Really. A project on something that spontaneously appeared and is almost identical to a project that never got finished. Never a dull day. A bunch of newspapers actually got one over on us,” he said. One-two-three’s smile was in full-force now, her squishy thing back in the desk and the drawer locked as she picked up her stamp again.

“Lack of competition has made us sloppy,” she said. Four-five-six grunted and swept the newspaper off the desk and into the bin.

“Clearly,” he said, turning to leave.

“Are we, uh…are we still on for drinks later?” One-two-three asked quietly. This was not the first time she’d asked, and she was concerned about coming off as too eager. Four-five-six took the time to properly arrange his face before turning back to her.

“Of course,” he said.

“Only good news I’ve heard all day,” said one-two-three, grinning.

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” four-five-six said as he left.

END

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Close Observation

If someone were to ponder some of this they might get the impression I’m nurturing a specific grudge or maybe a general sense of bitterness. I am, but that’s not what these are about.

Me not being a nice person and the content of these are unrelated. I think?

[They’re not watching]

“Watch me watch me!” The Scamp called out, waving cheerful from atop the highest possible point on the diving apparatus.

“I’m watching,” said the Observer who, in defiance of their name and what they’d just said, was not actually watching. Rather, they were idly flipping backwards and forward between two pages in their book. They weren’t reading it, they just enjoyed moving the pages.

The Scamp – who had believed what the Observer said, despite the obvious lack of any watching actually going on – sprang up into the air, arcing gracefully downwards towards the pool below. On their way they pulled off the sort of gravity-defying, physics-wounding acrobatics they had been dreaming up for weeks. The sort of things that send blood to all the wrong parts of the body, that looked like the person performing them was seconds away from having all their limbs fly off. Impressive stuff, in short. They hit the water and slipped beneath the surface with barely a ripple.

Coming up and sweeping their hair back out of their eyes to see just how delighted the Observer would look after seeing this, the Scamp was a little disappointed to find them staring blankly off into space. They had their neck twisted at a painfully awkward angle as well, so as to allow them to not face the pool at all.

“You weren’t watching!” The Scamp said, pouting. With a crack like the breaking of a tree branch the Observer’s neck turned further so they were actually looking at the pool.

“I was,” they said. They were, of course, lying.

“You were?” The Scamp asked, unsure. The Observer nodded, their much-limper neck adding considerable floppiness to the gesture. It didn’t look comfortable, with much swaying of the head, but the Observer didn’t appear to mind much. Any price to avoid paying attention to the Scamp was a price worth paying.

“Okay…well…watch again! Watch again!” The Scamp exulted, leaping from the pool and clambering up the very top of the diving apparatus once more. The Observer started to dig out their eyeballs.

“Watching?” The Scamp asked from their vantage point, cupping their hands so their voice would carry. It was hard to see the Observer clearly on account of a passing cloud, but they could just about make them out.

“Watching,” the Observer said, sealing their now empty and bleeding sockets with wax. Oblivious to this (or simply unaware of what it meant to their chances of being watched) the Scamp jumped again.

Their execution was even better than the first time, if such a thing were possible. In fact, it was possible. In fact again, it was too possible. Their execution was too good. Their twists and turns and acrobatic flourishes were performed with such flawless precision that they began to run into serious issues. They tumbled and turned faster than their body was capable of handling.

Coming apart in a screaming, bloody flurry of detached limbs as the g-forces tore them to bits, the Scamp plummeted from the top of the diving apparatus. This downward progress was halted abruptly not in the water but just beside it on the edge of the pool. There they splattered, producing the most incredibly sound (not to mention spray pattern). Those few other pool-goers who had been idly watching gawped in stunned horror, jaws hanging low. Several wiped Scamp off themselves, mutely appalled.

The Observer – who not been watching for obvious reasons – waited until they heard an (unrelated) splash before breaking out into insincere, rhythm-less applause. The kind that would be impossible for anyone else to mistake for anything less than a thinly-veiled insult.

“Told you I was watching,” they said picking up their book again and resuming flipping the pages. They rather hoped that was an end to pointless distractions for the day.

The Scamp, or what remained of them, gurgled softly and managed the closest thing to a smile they could in their present condition. They couldn’t be happier to have been watched doing what they loved, and their happiness continued even as they scraped from the poolside and unceremoniously tipped into the bins round the back of the building.

END

Dancing In The Dark

Dance yourself clean.

[Do something for the joy of doing it, all on your own]

The Performer was so called on account of their habit of performing. In this they were not alone. Many performed, but only one was the Performer, and that was this one. Others had actual names, rather than vague, gender-neutral descriptors. The Performer didn’t really see the point in a name, really.

Their chosen medium was dance and their chosen style unique to say the least. Unique to the point of sometimes not being recognised as dance at all. Not that it mattered much to the Performer. They knew what it was they were doing. What others thought about it was a passing concern at best.

One day though they did feel like putting themselves out there a bit, if only for something to do. Luckily for them they lived in an age where there was a vast and open area available for performances, in which just about anyone could see just about anything they wanted if they had the presence of mind to go out looking for it.

The Performer struck out into this vast and untamed no-man’s land of creative energy and carved out a little performance zone just for themselves, towards the back. It was away from everyone else it was true and they probably could have done a better job of drawing attention to themselves if they’d wanted to, but they hadn’t. It wasn’t too late for it, but still it wasn’t something they paid much mind to. They mostly just danced.

Off in the distance they could see much fuss and commotion as other performers – each doing their own thing in their own way – drew crowds of varying sizes and gained varying levels of popularity and acclaim. The Performer thought that once perhaps someone had glanced in their direction but it was sort of hard to tell.

One time someone did actually come to watch the dance and they said something nice before disappearing and never being seen again. It remained a pleasant memory for the Performer to cling to as the hours of silent, lonely dancing wore on. It gave them a nice warm glow.

The Performer was there for so long that the very landscape changed. What had been open before closed in a little, partitioning off, dividing. No-one really paid them any particular attention but they did end up being walled off, which was fine.

They had a door so people could go in or out (not that anyone did) and they had lights so they could see. It was fine, just different. Nothing stopped the dancing, except occasional breaks to sit and think of newer, fresher dances. Once these were thought up the dancing resumed.

Taking a moment to catch their breath and wipe the sweat from their brow one day they saw that one of the message-bots the caretakers of the vast performance place used to communicate with the inhabitants had approached their performance zone; the first sign of movement or life they’d seen all day. Or for many, many days, in fact. It trundled up to them, tilting its screen so it was easily visible before it flickered on and into life.

“This is an automatic message. Disinterest limits reached. No-one is watching. The lights will turn off in ten seconds,” said the screen. A digital counter in the corner of the display started counting down from ten.

The Performer shrugged. Worse things had happened, and it certainly didn’t seem like a good reason to stop. Why do anything for anyone else that you wouldn’t want to do just for yourself anyway? They didn’t need light to remember the steps, they didn’t need light to have fun dancing their dance, so it hardly mattered.

They kept dancing, even in the dark. If anything they enjoyed it more this way.

Because it was something they wanted to do, because it was something they enjoyed.

And nothing could ever harm this.

END

Flat

Not a lot I can say about this, really. I probably had something very clever but now I’ve forgotten it. My head feels kind of thick. Probably the tail-end of this cold

[A man’s beloved is not what she appears to be]

Were it not for his sweetheart, he probably would have gone mad years ago.

In the common parlance she might be said to be his rock. The foundation upon which his life was built. The point of solidity he could cling to when all around him was in flux. The person he could talk to about anything he wanted or needed to talk about. The most important person in his life, basically.

It helped of course that she was smart, funny, beautiful and generally all-round great to be near. How he’d got so lucky he had no idea. Maybe he’d done something very selfless in a previous life, he didn’t know. Questioning providence would be unwise, he felt, so he just enjoyed the hand that life had dealt him. Humbly, of course.

And so it was that after a particularly tedious day at work he was deeply grateful knowing that he had a sympathetic ear to go home to. She was already there when he arrived and listened patiently and quietly as he griped at length about just how boring everything had been. When he was done he felt a good stone lighter from unloading such pent-up irritation and smiled for the first time that day.

She was just standing there the way she sometimes did. Sometimes she stood like that for hours. A little strange he’d be the first to admit, but who was he to judge her idiosyncrasies? Anyone who would listen to his problems without telling him to shut up could stand wherever they liked for however long they liked, as far as he was concerned. Moving over to her, he sheepishly realised that he hadn’t even asked how her day had been yet. He’d get onto that. Soon.

“You love me, right?” He asked, half-joking. The answer was obvious. It was always obvious – so obvious in fact asking it was more a reflex action than anything else. Of course she loved him, and he loved her. It was only as the silence continued and she failed to respond that he looked up at her. Maybe she hadn’t heard him.

“Hmm?” He prompted, at least hoping to be asked again what he might have said. He got nothing. She stayed perfectly still, staring into nothing. He felt a lurch of worry – was something wrong?

“Sweetheart?” He asked, reaching out with trembling fingers. Touching her shoulder he found her cold and hard to the touch. He flinched with shocked worry, and in so doing nudged her over. She fell softly and hit the ground with a quiet sound of rushing air. She was perfectly flat. Her expression had not changed at all, nor had her body language. She had simply fallen over. Kneeling down beside her he discovered – to his shock – that she was in fact made of cardboard. Cut out of cardboard, in fact. A cardboard cut-out, you might say. Not a real person at all.

He had to admit it explained a lot. Her aversion to baths, her great abilities as a listener, her ability to stand for hours and a few rather more intimate, personal details he would rather not think about. This didn’t make this discovery any easier to feel good about. In fact, it made him feel just a touch foolish.

To have got so far and invested so much without noticing until now was embarrassing. It suggested a certain level of willful ignorance. In the common parlance he might be said to be a tit. He had no-one to blame but himself. In fact, now, he had no-one at all.

He was alone, he realised. The house was cold, dark and empty. It was just him.

END

Secret Techniques

Some of what I write at least makes some kind of sense – usually a small story about someone whose situation deteriorates and which abruptly ends just before they slip into despair – then there are ones like this, which are just…they just exist.

[The fresh employee sees the way his new company makes tea, is not impressed]

The Intake had a name, but until he’d been there a little while no-one cared to learn it. Certainly no-one was going to go to that sort of effort on his first day. Most people didn’t even bother to waste the time to look at him. The only one so-far to even acknowledge his presence was the Integration Officer, as it was her job to integrate him.

She gave him the full tour experience. She showed off the stationery cupboard, the stationary cupboard, the mobile cupboard – all the best cupboards. She showed him the two photocopiers and extolled their virtues at length. She did not show him the photocopier that actually worked, as he had yet to demonstrate the level of corporate loyalty this required. His time would come, no doubt. Probably when people learnt his name.

Last of all she took him to the kitchenette area that took up the very far corner of his assigned floor. There she told him of the company’s very strict tea-making policies.

“We make it wrong, you see,” she said, holding a teabag for demonstration purposes. The Intake’s brow wrinkled at this.

“Wrong?” He asked, thinking perhaps he had misheard or missed some important detail. He had not, and what the Integration Officer had said had been very straightforward. She dropped the teabag into the sink, wasting it.

“Wrong, yes. It is central to our corporate ethos that proper tea done well is theft; theft from the body of the company itself. It detracts loyalty, as it provides a measure of warmth and satisfaction that can and should only be provided by the company. So it is made wrong, to enforce this. Such is our way,” the Integration Officer said, making the sign of the teacup over their belly. A passing menial mirrored the gesture, more out of habit than anything else.

The Intake was still trying to unpack this statement when a shaggy figure stumbled into the kitchenette. Bedecked with teabags of every possible shape and size, supporting their weight on a stick that jangled with dozens of stained tea-stirrers all looped into place with string, this unexpected rival made a bee-line for the kettle.

“Ah, this is good timing. You can watch our Tea-Shaman perform his duties.” The Integration Officer said, standing aside to the given the Tea-Shaman some room and also to watch from a better position. The Intake just stood where they had been standing before, watching proceedings with mounting confusion.

“Tea-Shaman?” They asked, not really expecting any answer that might actually help them but feeling the need to ask all the same.

“The shaman employed by the company to make the tea; the only one allowed to make the tea. Watch. Watch…” The Integration Officer said, a hand on the Intake’s shoulder as she watched with delight. The Intake watched as well, with considerably less delight.

The Tea Shaman reached the kettle and, chanting, turned it on. It quickly became apparent that it was empty because of the horrendous smell of burning…something…but this was fine it seemed as the Integration Officer kept smiling and the Tea-Shaman kept chanting. Once it had finished only then did he fill it with water, activating it again and chanting in a slightly lower register.

“As you see we have a kettle, not a water heater – a water heater would be too convenient, too easy. We take the hard road by choice, to better remind ourselves.”

Of what was left unsaid. Meanwhile, the Tea-Shaman was busy tipping out minute quantities of boiling water into a series of paper cups, each smaller than the last. He paused between each to perform arcane hand-gestures and bless each up, a process that involved the recitation of a good two dozen or more lines of ancient, cryptic poetry.

“Our technique has been refined over generations. Passed down in the greatest of secrecy. The wisdom of ages guides his every movement,” the Integration Officer said as the Tea-Shaman went through the ritual motions with the ease that came from years of continuous practise. He removed a teabag from his person, placing it into a rune-inscribed styrofoam cup and then added each of the measures of boiling water. There was much jingling, jangling and odd arm movements that accompanied this.

Very little of what the Intake was watching was familiar to him as anything involved with the usual business of making tea. By now, he would have made tea. In fact, by now, he probably could have made several cups of tea and drunk at least one that had cooled down in the time taken to make a single cup to company standards.

“Lesser companies allow their employees to make their tea, can you imagine?” The Integration Officer scoffed.

“Utter madness,” the Intake said, not even bothering to inject sarcasm. A moment later they nodded and gave a muted thanks to the Tea-Shaman as the tepid, murky cup of tea was handed over to them. The smell was the first hint that something was amiss, as in no-way did it smell like anything even approaching tea.

Acutely aware of the eyes on him – those of the Tea-Shaman, the Integration Officer and indeed most of the rest of the floor – the Intake gingerly brought the liquid to his lips and sipped, his face wrinkling in instant, intense disgusting.

“My God, it tastes awful,” he said, his tone awed and his body shivering.

“Then all is well,” the Integration Officer said as there followed a spontaneous round of polite applause for the Tea-Shaman who was already shuffling off to the stairs to make more tea elsewhere.

END

Cold Hard Hugs #8_Relationship Upgrade

In my head, the world of Cold Hard Hugs has a surprisingly complex (read: bloated and overthought) backstory for WHY living machines are around and a bunch of other related nonsense, too.

NONE of it relates in ANY WAY to the story here (not to mention tonally completely different), and the main character is too incurious to ask or look into it anyway, so it’ll probably never come up. But it’s there, lurking, being far too weird.

What did any of that actually mean? What actually changed? Nothing. Everything.

Following our tête-à-tête both Tillie and myself were a little dazed. And giggly. There was a lot of giggling. I smiled a bunch because I couldn’t stop myself and Tillie’s lights got so bright it was hard to tell what colour they were actually supposed to be.

It was also lunchtime. This didn’t really factor in much, at least until my stomach rumbled. Tillie heard this, and despite my protests, insisted that she make lunch for me. I didn’t really want her going out of her way or anything – or having to use the kitchen for the first time – but she would not take any of my various ‘no’s and ‘it’s alright’s for an answer and pushed ahead regardless, sitting me down on the sofa with strict instructions to wait until she was done. An unusual and novel turn of events.

I don’t know why, but I had in my head that Tillie would be alright with food. No experience, yes, but she’d always struck me as someone who just knew how to do anything she wanted to do at the time she wanted to do it. I thought food – lunch of all things – would be a doddle.

It was not. She did horrible, horrible things.

I have no idea how she did what she did to whatever ingredients she used, but they were types of suffering that nothing in a fridge should ever have to go through. She called me to the kitchen in something of a panic once it was obvious events had got out of hand for her, but they then it was far, far too late to rescue it. We both stood by the bin in solemn silence as we attempted to scrape it off the plate. We ended up having to throw the plate away as well, though thankfully the pots and pans could be saved.

We looked at each other after this and started giggling again, because we couldn’t help it, and then we both ended up on the sofa together with a film inexplicably playing on the television. And it wasn’t even Wednesday! Clearly the rulebook was up in tatters. We were writing them fresh now! Or maybe I was just giddy with hunger. Whatever it was, it was fun. Far more fun than any of what we were doing had any right to be.

As she snuggled back into me and I held onto her, she craned her neck around to peer up at me. Lenses, again lenses. Did not look anywhere near as odd as the first time I’d seen them. Familiar now – comforting almost. Odd. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe maybe.

“Did you kiss me earlier?” She asked.

“You only just noticed?” I asked, my riposte immediate. Take that, Tillie.

“I thought I imagined it.”

“Nope. It happened. Top of the head, just a peck. You felt it?”

“I did.”

“Would you rather I hadn’t?”

“No, I liked it. Or I think I did. You should do it again. To check.”

She lowered her head slightly and I planted another tiny little kiss right on the top before sitting back again. She tilted her head one side, then the other, nodded sagely and then looked up at me once more.

“Yes, I definitely like it. Thank you.”

“You’re an odd one,” I said as she shuffled down in place, draping her tail over the end of the sofa and getting her herself down so she was pretty much just resting on my belly.

What qualified as ‘comfortable’ for a living-machine anyway? I doubted all of this moving around was for show, but I doubted it for purely arbitrary reasons. Then again, if those tactile sensors of hers were acute enough to notice me giving the tiniest of smooches to her head, then maybe she could get legitimately uncomfortable if she sat a certain way. I should ask her about it, really. Would I? No, probably not.

“I can’t believe this is happening…” she said.

“I know, right? It’s not even Wednesday and we’re watching something together,” I said and she gave me a smack to the leg, but she had no leverage so there was no real force behind it.

“Quiet you. You know what I mean.”

“I do. I really do.”

We watched the film in the kind of blissful, happy silence that comes from not needing to say anything to fill the void. The light outside was dreary. It started to spit with rain. What had started out a beautiful day had changed within the space of five minutes into a dark, grey, depressing one in the way only a British day could. The film wasn’t even that good. Things were perfect though. Just perfect. I wouldn’t have changed anything. Everything was wonderful.

Wonderful at least until the temperature started to drop, roundabout the time the second film started up (what else did we have to do? Work? Madness. Like we had work to do). The lounge was not properly insulated, for whatever reason, or at least it sure didn’t feel like it was. Looking at it from the outside I imagined it used to have been something else, like a garage for a very small car, or had been an extension that hadn’t been done right.

It hardly mattered. Point was, it got very cold inside when it got even a bit cold outside. It was bizarre. You could be inside and freezing to death, only to step out and find that it wasn’t even that bad. Probably how ice-houses worked, really. None of this was helped by the gap around the window either, which the landlord said he was hot onto to fix and had been hot onto to fix for some time now.

The upshot of this was that I was getting chilly on the sofa, and while Tillie wasn’t a hunk of ice, she wasn’t exactly as warm to hold as a flesh-and-blood person might have been. Maybe I wriggled the wrong way, as she noticed my sudden discomfort.

“Are you cold?” She asked. Tillie seemed more concerned with my body temperature on a moment-to-moment basis than I was. In fact, her concern with my welfare in general was baffling. But adorable.

“I’m fine,” I said, shivering, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

“You’re shivering,” she said. Well that worked out great.

“Okay, maybe just a tiny bit cold.”

Quick as a flash Tillie did something I had never seen her do, which was basically just a complete one-eighty turn on the spot, tail whipping around to give her just enough momentum to do it. She had gone from resting comfortably with her back on me to being practically face to face in the time it took most people to think about starting to turn around. I was alarmed.

“Would you like a blanket?” She asked with great intensity, her eyes (lenses, whatever – semantics) barely inches from mine.

“You have blankets?” I asked. She nodded.

“Uh, sure?” I said, which must have been taken by her as a firm ‘yes’ as she immediately shot off the sofa and out of the room. I sat perfectly still, a little taken aback by events. I did pause the film though, because that’s just courtesy.

I could hear Tillie shuffling about at speed in her room and a minute or two later she came back carrying an enormously thick blanket which she unceremoniously dumped on me in a big bundle without unfolding it. Helpful, I thought, starting to open it up myself. It was pretty nice, actually. It radiated coziness.

“I am surprised you have blankets,” I said as laid it out over my legs and then flipped it away so she could slide back in. Once she did, the blanket went back into place over both of us, which was glorious. Never had I felt so snuggled in all my life.

“I like blankets. This is my favourite I’ve made.”

Having been playing with a corner of the thing – it was beaded! – I paused.

“You made this?” I asked.

“I knitted it, yeah,” she shrugged. I goggled, looking at the corner of blanket between my fingers with renewed reverence. This was unexpected.

“You knit?!” I asked, unable to hide my shock. But not my horror, as there was none, only awe. This gave more evidence to my theory that Tillie could do just about anything she felt like; a theory that had taken something of a hit with the horrible, unmentionable mess she had made of dinner.

“Sometimes. I got bored a lot before you showed up,” she said, maybe a little defensively. I had to admit this was a good reason to knit, though presumably it’s a fine thing to do even when not bored. I don’t know, I’m not a knitter. All fingers and thumbs, me, and none of them are good at knitting.

“Well, I guess that makes sense,” I said, releasing the corner and taking her with both arms again. I then remembered the film was still paused, reached out to start it again, and then put my arms back around her. I’m an idiot, basically. Not that Tillie seemed to care, sinking back into me almost at once.

“You’ve never seen all the stuff I knitted? It’s all over my room.”

I tried to bring a picture of Tillie’s room to my mind but failed immediately because I had never seen it. That she thought I had was probably just a slip-up on her part.

“I’ve, uh, never seen your room. Remember?” I asked. She took a second.

“Oh. Oh yeah. I remember,” she said. The film burbled on. Something exploded on-screen, which was pretty great. It had probably been important to someone bad. Or maybe important to someone good and avenging its detonation would be integral to the plot. It was hard to say. But still great.

“Would you like to see it?” She asked.

“Your room? Sure. You want to see mine?”

“Yes.”

Something else exploded. Some people ran around and shot stuff. Some lesser people shot at them but because they weren’t main characters they didn’t hit anything and they died not long afterwards, usually falling over railings when they did. This was pretty great too. I made a mental note to watch this film more often, whatever it was.

“Which do we do first?” Tillie asked after some more violence on-screen.

“Yours,” I said, emphatically.

“Why mine?”

“Because mine is boring. It’s just full of stuff. Yours is probably fully of better stuff,” I said, as though this made perfect sense. She tittered.

“Alright, can’t argue with that. Want to go now?”

“Sure, lead on,” I said, and so she did. It was a mark of just how straight-up cavalier we were now that neither of us bothered to pause the film. We could probably guess what was going to happen anyway. Someone would win, probably the good guy. It was nice like that.

Tillie’s room was just around the corner and so it took both of us mere seconds to get there, though as we approached the door I felt the oddest sense of excitement building in the pit of my stomach. So strong was the odd feeling that it almost overwhelmed the hunger still prowling around in the bottom of my belly. Excitement was a bit of an odd reaction though, I thought. It was just a room, I told myself, but this did little to lessen it, and it only got stronger as she opened the door and I followed her in.

I was not sure what I had been expecting of Tillie’s room. I’d always pictured it as rather like anyone else’s room, just without the stuff Tillie wouldn’t need. Clothes, for example. So she’d have more space, but what would she fill it with, I wondered? Not much, was the answer. She had all the sort of things I might have expected – books, an astonishingly neat desk against one wall (with no chair, I noticed) and so on – but since the room had clearly been made for someone flesh-and-blood in mind that just left Tillie with things she had no use for and which were empty, such as the wardrobe. It was a little sparse, to sum it up, and with the curtain drawn it was dark even with the light on.

“It’s not that impressive,” she said sheepishly, hands clasped together. I put on as brave a face as possible and smiled, an arm going around her shoulders.

“I’m impressed. Do I get a tour?” I asked. She gave me a flat look – again, very easy for her to do – and then caved.

It was not a long tour, obviously. I got a proper look at just how empty her drawers and the wardrobe were, a sheepish explanation of the meticulous system of organisation she used for her work and the desk (which put me to shame, of course, I a devoted follower of the ‘heap of stuff’ method of desk organisation), a slightly interesting glance over her heaps of dog-eared, bargain-bin schlock books and then finally around to the final corner of the room.

“And that’s where I go on standby,” she said, pointing to the large and obviously well-used nest of pillows and blankets piled up in the corner of the room. It was the least neat and tidy part of the place, and therefore the part I identified with most. It looked very cozy, and I grinned when she said ‘standby’, but the lack of a bed made me feel a bit sad for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. As nice as I’m sure it was to – ahem – go on standby in a big heap of knitted softness, the lack of a real bed just seemed to leave a void. Maybe it was me.

“You make those ones, too?” I asked, nodding at the blankets and such.

“Yeah. Not the pillows.”

“Well obviously, pillows take years of practise” I said and she gave a short laugh.

“When I was here on my own, before you, sometimes I would come home and put all the blankets on top of me and just stay there for a while. Once, I stayed there for a whole day. I don’t think anyone noticed.”

She’d said all this rather simply, as though it wasn’t a big deal. Leaving aside that she had apparently been living here on her own before – the financial ramifications of which I was sure had a good explanation – that she had taken to hiding on her own for hours on end was horrifying to me. I gaped.

“What? Why?!” I asked, appropriately aghast. She shrugged.

“I didn’t have anything else to do. And I didn’t want to go have to go out, I had nowhere to go. I sort of hoped someone might notice, but no-one said anything so I don’t think they did.”

I was still horrified on a very baseline level. Taking her by the shoulders I swivelled her to face me, bending a little so were on the level.

“That’s never happening again, okay? You and me will always have something to do and I will certainly notice if you disappear. I’ll get antsy if you leave the room for more than five minutes, okay?”

Her lights went a deep pink and she nodded.

“Okay,” she said.

“Good. That aside, that big heap does look comfortable…” I said, eyes wandering over to it. It beckoned to me with promises of warmth and snuggliness. Alluring knitted siren of wool and pillows.

“Oh, it is!” Tillie said cheerfully.

“Could we – could I – maybe find out…how comfortable?” I asked, waggling eyebrows because why not.

“You want to what?” Tillie did not understand what the eyebrows meant. Probably because she didn’t have any. Poor girl.

“Get in there, under those,” I said, adding as an afterthought: “with you.”

Her lights blinked and flickered a moment as she processed this. I was expecting another question and was braced for that, but what I got instead was Tillie grabbing me by the collar and dragging both of us into the nest in a tumbling tangle. I yelped, but it was lost in the scuffle as blankets and pillows went this and that way and we were burrowed down deep.

Somehow it worked, and through some mild struggle we emerged, snug, comfy and facing one another. One of Can go her arms had tucked in under me and the other sort of just curled up uselessly between us the way someone’s arm always ends up being in the way, while I just straight-up held her. The support from the blankets was fabulous. I would tip my hat to Tillie for her knitting abilities had I been wearing a hat and had my arms not been full of, well, her.

“What do we do now?” She asked. She really was very close to me – or me to her; those lenses maybe three or four inches away, if that. She sounded hushed.

“Nothing, really. We stay like this until we get sick of it,” I said with a mild shrug. I didn’t have much experience to draw on but in what limited form I had, that was generally how it was meant to work out. Tillie sighed happily and sunk into the nest a bit deeper, curling up closer to me.

“I don’t think I can get sick of this,” she said.

“Then we’ll be here a while then.”

“Good.”

I felt her tail wrap around the bottom of my legs. Not a lot, but enough for me to notice what an unusual thing it was to happen. Cute though, in its way. I watched as the weird little iris aperture things inside her lenses closed. Like she was closing her eyes. Again, cute, in its unique way. The tail tightened and it felt as though she was trying to keep from slipping away.

I could get used to this, I thought. Different, but not bad. Not bad in the slightest.

Giving her a squeeze I said nothing, because there wasn’t really anything I could say that would make it any better than it already was.

Hoops

Hopefully didn’t post already. Even if I didn’t, the message here is familiar.

Thematic consistency, I’d call it. Laziness is what it actually is.

[Life is a series of hoops of increasing importance. None of them matter.]

When Archie was in nursery, he was told by his parents and teachers that passing his First Test was the single most important thing in his life and would determine what course his future would take. Filled with the weight of responsibility, he girded his three year old loins and put in as much effort as he could. Duly, he passed (with a cuddly sheep!).

Immediately upon his entry into post-nursery he was summarily informed that the First Test was, in fact, a complete waste of time designed to make the young kids feel important and that the Second Test – which was coming up – was the true test of a child’s intellectual mettle and something for which he should definitely prepare himself. Choking back a small amount of bitterness at having been lied to so, Archie prepared himself for the Second Test.

Passing the second test he was graciously admitted to Zero Grade and, amidst the celebratory biscuits and squash, was informed that the previous two years had been off the academic record and that this year his efforts would finally be recognised. He was told this like it was a good thing, and everyone seemed shocked when he began pouting. Not wishing to seem ungrateful for all that had been done, Archie swallowed his dissatisfaction and got on with the business of preparing for his Third Test.

Archie couldn’t shake the feeling – even with his teachers and parents insistence – that he was simply doing the same thing again. He even cross-referenced his older books and found that they were, in fact, exactly the same books as his newer ones only with different covers. When he pointed this out he was worried at the complete lack of any concern, surprise or anger at all. Instead all he got was further insistence that he should persevere. Faced with no other options he did so, and continued to succeed.

When it was time to begin First Grade and to start studying for his Fourth Test he was informed that now it really got serious; everything leading up to this point had merely been to weed out the weak and prepare the strong for the trials to come. This, he was told, was the turning point. The point at which men would leave behind boys, girls would beat the boys and the media would say that the tests were getting easier. Whether he’d get to take a Fifth Test depended on this.

He passed, and was told exactly the same thing about the Fifth Test.

Which he also passed.

With the Fifth Test over and done with Archie was free to continue into either employment of a sort or choose to pursue higher education. Out of lack of options – with the job market dry for anyone lacking a degree or other form of qualification (he was told) – and at his parent and teacher’s goading he decided to go into higher education and, on account of his good results, managed to get into his third choice.

Now, Archie was informed, he would be given the freedom to work how he felt. No longer would he have to conform to the same rigid standards that had bound him during his younger years; now he could let his academic potential run free. In fact, he was given forty pages explaining just how free they could run while also helpfully outlining how far that freedom extended.

Equally helpfully, he was told his first year didn’t matter. After he had finished it.

His second year, by contrast, was far more important. Agreeably the work he was doing during it seemed much like the work he had done during the first year, but this didn’t matter; it was important this time. During his second year Archie also learnt the importance of reducing his part in any work he did – it was very important to show that your work was actually a meticulously crafted patchwork of other people’s ideas all properly referenced and shown to be nothing of your own.

It was with great relief that Archie left higher learning, degree well-earned and prospects much improved. It was with the deflating of that relief that Archie discovered his degree was now worthless. Or at least, that’s what the man offering him an unpaid internship said the instant the degree was in his hand.

On further questioning Archie discovered that the company magnanimously offering to employ him for nothing was so rich it could afford to affect a sort of modern day slavery on the whimsical notion that people are willing to work for free in order to bulk up a CV most people only glance at to say ‘no’.

Archie feels somewhere along the line something may have gone wrong.

END