Still heady from my success as a runner-up in the Stoke Story 2002 writing competition (with “Pete and the Pottery Genie” — see elsewhere on this website), I jumped at the chance to enter the Stoke Story 2010 competition, promptly starting to write the story the day before it was due in and finishing it about 1a.m. that night, ready for emailing the following morning.
The theme once again had to have a local flavour and be something to do with the year 2010 (or anniversary past or future thereof). I toyed with the possibility of a “Pete and the Pottery Genie II” but couldn’t think up a plot, so I just adopted a suitably local sounding tone of voice and went where it took me:
If someone had told me a hundred years ago that in 2110 Stoke was going to be the Capital of England, I’d have thought they were daft.
Shows you how wrong you can be.
Mind you, to be fair, I was ’owt be a lad of ten at the time and half of the city seemed to have been knocked down to make way for new houses they’d ran out of money to build, the whole nation was depressed by the public spending cutbacks by a government nobody had voted for, and it was hard to imagine Stoke as anything but a third-rate city that couldn’t hope to compete with the likes of Manchester or Birmingham, leave alone the mighty London.
Still, best be telling you who I am, I suppose. I’m nobody.
Nobody special, that is to say. I’m not the mayor of Stoke, or anything like that (more’s the pity, the money she’s on). Not even one of Stoke’s literary lights (you didn’t need telling that, right?). Just an ordinary Colin, lucky enough to born at the right time, as presumably the person reading this, to see medical science improve enough to extend the average lifespan to nearer two hundred years, from the seventy-odd of a hundred years ago. Heck-a-do, even my mother’s still alive.
Still, it’s unbelievably fantastic to have lived see the changes a century have wrought. I admit, as a kid, I was often a little jealous of the stories my granddad told me of the things he’d lived through: two World Wars, technology advancing from horse-drawn carriages through to fast cars and jet planes in the space of a few decades. Rock music. Pop music. Seeing Michael Jackson in Tesco’s. (’Though his mind was going near the end, so I’m not at all certain of the veracity of the last one.)
I’d even missed the invention of the Internet. What was left to invent?
True, we still hadn’t been to Mars, and even the moon seemed such a long time ago some even questioned if we’d ever actually gone there. But then, what’s changed that much? Yeah. We got to Mars back in 2026 (what the heck-a-do for?), and even a moon of Saturn (don’t ask me which one), and there’s a probe orbiting some other sun, somewhere, but if there’s anything out there worth meeting, it’s still hiding from us, so I’ll not be shaking an ET’s tentacle yet-as-like.
But I’s reckon, and many who’re already thinking I’s as daft as a loon would grudgingly agree, this past century has been the best one yet. No World Wars. Hardly any car crashes, now that the things can drive themselves. (Heck-a-do, you can even drink yourself silly, whilst it does 150 down the motorway.) The brain chips, that originally just let you access the World Wide Web, literally ‘at will’, but now can link your mind to another’s so that you can actually experience their thoughts, their emotions, their every sensation.
“Theres, Son. I’ll carry on for you, whilst you gather yourself.”
“It’s not all as rosy-do as my son has been implying. Take me. Yes, I’m still alive at the age of one hundred and twenty seven years, but those of us who were first to have their lives extended couldn’t have their biological clocks turned back so I’s been middle-aged for over half-century now.”
“And those lucky, and I’s use that word guardedly, enough to have their clocks turned back often chose ill-advisedly to be forever teenagers.”
“Who could ever have imagined being mother to a teenager for over fifty years straight?”
“I’s was just saying.” Aside: “He’s a good son, but it’s still not easy.”
“I’s ready to talk about Betty now, Mum.”
I’s was saying, these brain chips (“moccasin chips”, some have dubbed them), that let you experience another’s feelings, can be wonderful. Never before in the whole history of humankind has anyone been able to know as a fact, in every little detail and shade, exactly how someone else felt about them, and share an intimate moment, a romantic moonlight, a sad movie, anything, so completely and literally, with another human mind.
It sounded ghastly. Do women have minds? Surely, just a mushy, soggy, soppy bog of a place?
But then I went to Tesco’s.
Brain chips were still expensive novelties then, not to be found on the shelves of your local supermarket. Not even a big, 24 hour opening, Tesco’s.
Betty, as she was named according to her name badge, was filling a shelf.
She wasn’t my type at all. Too slim, with elbows that could cut you. Short-ish blonde hair, average height. Nondescript.
I asked her where the jam was. (Why. Do. They. Keep. Moving. Stuff. Around?) She turned her face to look at me from where she was squatting, pulling bottles of orange squash to the fore, to put new stock behind.
Her eyes were green. It was all I could see at first. Then I noticed them crinkling into a smile as she registered the effect they were having on me. Her nose, cute, small, curved. Cheekbones high.
I flustered back to normality. “Hi, do you know the jam’s been moved to, please” I asked again.
She lit up the world with another smile again as she turned and led me to the new aisle for jams and other spreads. (Opposite frozen food cabinets, I ask you?!)
No, I didn’t drop to one knee and ask her to marry me. Or even ask for her phone number. Or when she was due to finish work, for a coffee. I didn’t work, or think, that fast back then.
Nor when I saw her in their on a subsequent visit.
Or the visit after that.
Allrights, or some time after that neither. But eventually.
Eventually, we did all the usual stuff. Cinema. Hanging. Coffee. Lots of coffee. Together, in the way couples have been together since the dawn of humankind, but in a sense alone. Unable to really enter our loved one’s soul, however long we gazed into their eyes, longing for that ultimate union.
But the century hadn’t been standing still. We already knew that we were going to be together for much longer than any couples in history before us, thanks to the improvements in longevity treatments. And millions swarmed to embrace the original brain chips that enabled them to get instant access, wherever they may be, with the World Wide Web, as it was still being called, and meant that as never before, people were never completely alone but could email, tweet, chat, blog, mind conference, phone anyone anywhere, anytime they wanted.
It came along at just the right time to sweep I’s and Betty along with it. We were never out of touch. Our spare moments either a constant chatter or shared silence. I suppose, if progress had stood standing, we would have grown out of the novelty, like an old married couple in the previous century. But, of course, it didn’t. Our frozen youth, increased lifespan, and advances in the brain chip technology meant that soon we had the ability to share our souls.
At first, it was just the ability to share emotions. Then, as the technology improved, sensations too, then thoughts.
Debate sparked about if this was truly a merging of individual consciousness and what this meant for the future of humankind. But who cared about all that when you could gaze into your loved one’s eyes and literally see yourself as they saw you, and feel what they were feeling, and communicate mind to mind, soul to soul.
“I’s never known what that like.”
“I’s know, mum.” Dad had just left one day, when I was nine, leaving us both alone.
It was addictive, I’s suppose, that degree of intimacy the chips made possible. Soon we were grabbing every possible moment to share each other’s sensations and feelings, wherever we happened to be.
My last memory of Betty was one such intimate moment. I was sitting on a bench in Hanley Park, as was, before Stoke became the most important part of the city. She, judging from the sensations I was sharing, was likewise sitting outside, enjoying the heat of the late-autumn sun on her skin, her breathing slow and relaxed, her mind stretching out to embrace mind when…
“Gather yourself, Son.”
“I’s okay, mum.”
GIRL KILLED IN LONGTON SHOOTOUT, the local news headline had been.
The sensation of pain had lasted an instant, then her mind was gone leaving a moment of confusion as my brain chip’s software reacted to the loss of connection. But I barely noticed it as my own mind was numb at the realisation as to what the sensations had meant.
Betty had been shot in the back of the head. A stray bullet smashing through the huge, floor to ceiling windows of the supermarket. Fired by a panicking gunman in a robbery going rapidly wrong.
A senseless death.
Some news commentators blamed a spate of violent heist movies that had been popular during the summer, when it turned out the gunman had been just nineteen years old and had once seen one of the films.
Local commentators said the violence was just a side-effect of Stoke’s new status as a Big City, a result of the city’s much increased population to three millions, and the huge influx of peoples, ever attracted to the Big City Lights, and the money and opportunities that inevitably swarm round any centre of commerce and power.
“Ay, it’s not the Stoke I remember.”
“It’s not the world anyone remembers, mum.”
But I guess mum’s right, it’s not the Stoke I remember either. A hundred years back in 2010 when, as a kid of ten, I got to see a big (for Stoke at that time), big outdoor concert, to celebrate Stoke’s first one hundred years as a city, in Hanley Park as was. There was just ten thousand people or so at that concert, and I suppose there was some minor pick-pocketing and such-as-like low-level crimes but it felt safe, and friendly.
Stokies are such friendly folk, the local ’paper’s letters page always said.
That’s still the case in some of the outlying suburbs, and small isolated estates like Park Green, built in the 2070s. But now it’s like any large modern city: millions of people living in their own social networks, remembering that they belong to the same city only for the big occasions, or not at all.
Still, I’s guess it’s a honour for Stoke to be becoming England’s new Capital City. Who’d have imagined that the decades of hostility against the London based government would eventually lead to an English Rebellion, insisting on a new Capital City, more centrally located, and that that city would be the once humble Stoke?
It had taken a good ten years for the city’s councillors to draw up the plans in the city’s bid to become the Capital. Betty had been excited, as the first artist’s impressions on the city’s website. Seeing the proposed Civic Tower, like a futuristic Houses of Parliament, to replace the London based seat of government. New public works of art. Extending the old Hanley Park, to host a concert to dwarf the one a hundred years earlier. New public transport links, including a 500k.ph hover rail link to Europe and Asia. A new stadium, “Fit for the Capital”.
Ay, I’s and mum have seen a lot of changes during the past century, not all good (heck-a-do, we’re in the hundred and fifty nineth series of Top Gear, for all that’s holy!). And more’s to come, I’s sure. But I’s still debating whethers to go to thats concert or no, without Betty.
“Mum! I’s a hundred and ten years old, I’s sure I can decide for mysen.”
“Well, I’s sure Betty would’ve wanted you to.”
Experiencing something without another mind’s sensations and feelings to share, though? Without Betty’s green eyes and smile to catch mine. For upto another hundred years at that.
©John Steele 2010, 2011
Sadly, there seemed to be no runners-up places this time round and my story didn’t come 1st, 2nd, 3rd (or “Commended”). I enjoyed writing it though, and present it above for your reading pleasure.