Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Note: This short story was written in May 2015, the first in what was to be a multi-entry experiment in writing pieces based on songs that I enjoy. I did this one, based on "Take" by the band Tunng, then got bogged down in an attempt to write another based on The New Year's "The End's Not Near". Listen to "Take" before reading. ~BJC

The blocky red lights said 3:24. Arthur sat upright in bed, and flailed his covers off. He knocked the glass of water from his bedside table. It slid, fell, and landed right-side up on the carpet, rocketing water into the air. Drops landed on Arthur’s wrinkled face, his bedclothes, the clock, and the pocket-sized journal he kept on that table. He frantically wiped the drop from his notebook, shakily clutched his pencil, and began to write before his dream could fade. He had seen her face, her eyes ablaze in the ancient light of the sun, fading as it always had during that summer in the old Peckham flat—flitting, light and dark, between the neighboring buildings. She would have been twenty-five, and he would have been thirty. The well-worn CD player stood on the dresser, which has long since been thrown out. The sound of an orchestra emerged from it, slowly, as though from miles away: Brahms’s Lullaby. She was singing it to him, and Arthur for the life of him now could not remember what words she was singing. “Celestine,” he whispered as he scrawled. The word gave him pain.

In his memory, the fading sun disappeared, and the old creaky-necked white lamp was up, leaving a bright spotlight on the wall. Celestine still sung arcane and unrememberable words to The Lullaby, even as she made a rabbit shape appear in shadow in the spotlight. The words and The Lullaby intensified, and the images became more real. An actual wolf, with teeth. A home. A naked woman and a naked man, slowly approaching each other. Arthur giggled at this, and as the images approached each other, he turned his head for a moment, only to turn back and find himself, still in his thirty-year-old body, slipping under the sheets with Celestine in her twenty-five-year-old body. The sun rose precipitously, and clouds rolled in.

They began to walk on the street. It was Consort Road, and their walking pace was somehow as fast as cars until they reached the cemetery. The clouds opened up on them, and it poured all around them. Arthur and Celestine were still naked, and the rain didn’t get them wet. The ground swelled with mourners, standing in black over an empty grave with no casket. A huge computer floated above them in the air. It had the shape of a gray, glowing hot-air balloon dragging an old, old gray internet cable, but Arthur knew it was a computer. A woman, who Arthur knew to be precisely seventy years old, went to the terminated end of the gray line, and placed her mouth on it, as though sipping through a straw. She disappeared into the cable and up into the computer balloon.

Celestine began to cry, and Arthur joined her, looking miserably at the balloon. She began to sing a sad song, which Arthur recognized after a few notes. “The Bonny Earl O’ Moray”. Arthur joined in. She winked as she purposely sang about the Lady Mondegreen, and the mourners started at the sound of her name. Some leered at them, puffy faced and weeping. Others laughed and followed them. Some joined in the song. Celestine led the crowd, lifting off the ground and flying through the air, still naked, into a park in which the trees began to grow at a visible and miraculous rate. Vines flourished before everyone’s eyes, and as Celestine landed, a fountain sprang at her feet.


Arthur scribbled frantically, having written up to the shadow puppets and desperately trying to hold the whole experience in his aging memory until his mechanical pencil could scratch it into the paper. The lead snapped. He pumped the action at the end of the pencil in a frenzy. No more graphite filament was forthcoming. He searched the table for any other pencil, any pen. Nothing. The dream faded quickly in his worry, and soon there was only one word left, the word he had uttered aloud. “Celestine,” he said to himself again, and patted the sheets next to him. They were as cold and as empty as they had been for decades.

He cried to himself, letting whatever tears would form fall onto his bedclothes. Nothing for it but a drive, he thought, even though it’s dark out. Hope the car’s still here.

Arthur’s house in South Croydon was his mother’s, though he hadn’t moved into it until years after she passed away. His car, however, wasn’t his. It was too expensive now to have your own car, and once he became a pensioner, the government provided one to be shared between himself and three other pensioners on the block. One of them smoked in it even though you weren’t supposed to. He wandered out of the bedroom in slippers and pyjamas and grabbed the housekey, dangling from a hook just inside the front door. He opened the door and with relief, found that the small car was still there.

It took two tries on the fingerprint reader to get the door to open, because he couldn’t quite see where the pad was the first time. He sat down on the middle of the bench seat and pressed the ignition button, which ignited nothing, but did start the electric motor and the computers.

“Peckham Rye,” he said to the computer.

“I’m sorry, I did not understand you,” came the soothing female voice of the machine

“Peckham Rye.”

“I’m so—”

“Dulwich Library,” he said. The problem with the car is that it didn't always listen to you, tried to make things more convenient. Took you to the Tesco when you wanted to go to the mom-and-pop grocer you used to love. He thought perhaps the computer might still have a problem with this, as there were probably a half-dozen closer libraries, but something had made him want to drive past the Peckham Rye Park. Something to do with the dream, he thought. Perhaps. It seemed as though the car had no complaints.

The drive was quick, mechanical, painless, the way he'd remembered every driverless trip since he'd gotten the vehicle. Occasionally light beeping accompanied various turns and other maneuvers. He honestly had no complaints about the fact that there was no driver. It was just that damned computer making decisions for you that was no good. The streetlights zoomed past and the Dulwich Library was in view, closed with an empty parking lot. OK, now to triangulate, he thought. The Tube station was close to the park.

"Peckham Rye tube station, please," he said.

The car got going, and took a circuitous route of all left hand turns to arrive at the tube station. Arthur did this several times, calling out a location close to the park. A couple of them, like Nunhead Cemetery, were ignored, and for the other destinations, the car took long routes that avoided the park entirely, never went up or down Consort Road, never passed the old apartment complex, not that Arthur knew whether it would still be standing after forty-five years. It was as if the car knew what he wanted and was determined to deny him. Anxiety started to well in his eyes and in his chest. Breathing became more difficult. He weakly hit the dash with his fist, and unrolled the window to an abnormally cold summer night.

"Damn you, computer!" he shouted.

Celestine had never had the same distrust as Arthur, never once felt threatened by new things. She had brought a computer with dial internet into their Brixton apartment, all those years ago. She had upgraded a couple of times there and in their starter home, and had spent quite a lot of her money on newer and newer machines after the split. When they had managed to reconnect almost a decade after that, she had the whole complement of wearables and head accessories, and the intelligent agents and the lot.

"Damn you, computer!" he shouted again.

When the time came, and it was possible for utopian dreamers to finally realize a fully technologically-mediated society, governed by what was supposedly a "friendly" artificial intelligence, she was gone. At least she went to the one in America, he had thought at the time. Not that he'd ever see her again. To his knowledge, no one had ever heard from a utopian commune dweller after they joined. No one escaped, or no one wanted to leave. Some rumors had it that they had uploaded their consciousnesses into a mammoth computer and killed their own bodies. Others held that they were planning to take over the rest of human society with the support of their AIs.

"Damn you, computer," he coughed. He had a small coughing fit. "Damn you, lungs!" he shouted in something of a raspy wheeze.

The beeping in the car increased in frequency, pitch, and volume. Something was wrong. The windows began to roll up. "Stop, stop," he called. He pressed the window lever to no avail.

"Please remain calm," the female voice said. A small hiss emerged from the air vents, and a few moments later, there was no light from the streetlamps. There was no light from the dash or the headlights. There was sound, then motion, then nothing.


Arthur woke up in the car, in his drive in South Croydon. He managed to drag himself back upstairs to his bedroom, glaring at the empty top of his dresser, glaring at his notebook, still open, glaring at his bed. He sobbed himself to sleep.

The morning came, bright and clear, and Arthur awoke rather suddenly, as a bird chirped in the window. He rolled over to find a lump next to him in bed. His mind wandered, desperately seeking recognition. Oh, yes, of course. It was Celestine, just as he had expected. What a terrible nightmare, he thought.

Celestine rolled over, her seventy-year old features still so beautiful to Arthur. She began to speak, but Arthur must have had something in his ears, because it was difficult to hear. He thought he might tell her to speak up. Instead, he began to talk about his dream. In his mind, it was as though he was telling her about every detail, which was clear as crystal. In his ears, though, his own speech was slurred, stunted, unintelligible, slow.

The noise startled him, and he began to cry again. Am I having a stroke? he thought. Celestine sat up and said something, which was equally unintelligible. She leaned over, and then, as she put her hands tightly over his ears, he could miraculously hear her. "Wake up, Arthur."

Arthur woke up in his bed. An orchestra was playing Dvorak, "From the New World". The ancient CD player was on top of his dresser, as it always had been. He took the glass of water from off his bedside table. It was full and a little cold, with bubbles that had formed near its rim in the night. The notebook was there, open with a cheap ballpoint pen, as it always was. The last entry was two weeks ago Thursday, a dream about a cricket match with aliens. Sunlight streamed into the window. Arthur arose with his normal difficulty, and saw the car in his drive. Becky, the smoker, was crossing the street to come take it. His bed was empty and the sheets were disarrayed. He felt a sob well up in his throat, but when it emerged, it had transformed into a relieved sigh.

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