Helen had given up noticing that her room was small. What did it matter? A bed, a US™, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. A chair to sit in. All standard issue ULTIMATE® Home products. She still didn’t like but had grown used to the institutionally insipid magnolia walls. She never thought that would happen. It was a daily reminder that Victims had no choice in the matter. They were lucky ULTIMATE® took care of them. In History people had had to rely on the state, and by 2020 Care in the community was as much a myth as Helen of Troy. Ideals died with the ₲₨ΩHist. Everything was re-invented by ULTIMATE® one little piece at a time, without anyone really noticing it, until there was nothing but ULTIMATE® everywhere.
Sure, Helen could remember a time when you still ate Mars Bars and Big Mac's, bought Persil, wore Levi's, shopped at Tesco or Walmart, and when people raved about these things. And then, later, when people became cynical and raged about these things. And then when the products became ULTIMATE® Mars Bars, ULTIMATE® Coca-Cola, ULTIMATE® credit. And after that, when caring capitalism went into its cocoon, to emerge as the new, improved, ULTIMATE® world where brands were all subservient to the ULTIMATE® brand. Where Brand Loyalty became a one party state. Everyone was branded and everyone was part of the Brand. And they loved it.
In Helen’s eyes everything had become corrupted. Even memory. Memory was now mediated through ULTIMATE® and you were supposed to consume it through the US™ screen. But Helen could not bring herself to do this. The alternative was to use her own memory. She hoped that by keeping it active she could retain it, but it was a difficult task. Increasingly things only came back as little more than soundbites and the temptation was to go to the Memory Bank where you could get a full colour real-time recreation of events from your life. Helen still felt this was cheating. And avoided it as far as possible. Total avoidance was impossible.
She looked at the magnolia walls. And was back ten years.
‘Magnolia, how insensitive,’ she’d said as she entered her room for the first time.
The attendant hadn’t picked up on her displeasure.
‘It’s a most practical colour,’ she replied.
‘It’s institutional,’ Helen pointed out.
‘This is an institutional home,’ the attendant replied without a hint of irony before showing Helen how she could close and open the blinds and giving her basic instructions in the US™, a thing Helen hadn’t ever seen, never mind interacted with before.
‘And this is your Memory Bank….’ the attendant was running through the regular routine for new victims (sorry, residents), ‘You can place any memories in here and replay them when you like. You can link it from your…’ she tailed off, realising that Helen had not come with the requisite software to enable her to link her memories – Helen was a rural victim and had not kept up to date with technology. ‘Oh well… you’ll have a lot of time here,’ the attendant carried on, undaunted, ‘I suggest you put aside some time each day to add to the Memory Bank and before you know it the hard work will be done and you can just sit back and enjoy.’
Helen had felt there was a hidden threat even in this. Log your memories before your brain atrophies and all you can do is consume memory, not create it. And she was right. The whole thrust of the flagship ULTIMATE® ADAS® (Advanced Dementia Adaptive System) was to allow people to consume memories which they would in no way know were their own or not. Did it matter? As long as the memories kept them quiet and happy in the moment?
Helen had tried to go along with the system. Okay, even at first it had been half-heartedly, but she had tried. The first thing that popped into her mind was magnolia. So magnolia it was. Left alone, she felt somewhat embarrassed, talking to herself out loud, not realising that the Memory Bank could tap right into your thoughts if you so instructed your laser embedded brandloyalty barcode chip. The one she’d just had ‘linked up’ to the central database. It itched just slightly for the first few days but you quickly forgot. No worse than the microchips people had put into their pets in the days when people had real pets with real desires to wander. Pets you could talk to so it didn’t seem you were talking to yourself.
‘Magnolia. Who could come up with such a travesty?’ she observed, ‘how could you take something as beautiful as magnolia blossom and pervert it into the most insipid paint colour known to man?’ She sighed. But that wasn’t memory. The statement led to the memory. The memory now came flashing back…
It was 1990. Helen was in the garden with Catriona, then aged nearly four. The magnolia blossom was at its finest which meant it must have been early May. It was hot. They were drinking home made lemonade.
‘Me like the bubble tree,’ Catriona said.
‘I like..’ Helen corrected her instinctively, the way parents do when they are in the middle of teaching the vagaries of English to their offspring. Then she actually listened to her daughter.
‘The bubble tree?’ she asked.
Catriona had pointed at the magnolia tree. ‘Bubble tree,’ she repeated, smiling.
On closer inspection she was right, the magnolia blossoms did resemble bubbles. Even as she was correcting her daughter, ‘It’s called a magnolia tree, darling,’ Helen appreciated the wonder of a world where you could make up your own words, creating meaning for the first time. The wonder of childhood. And how quickly it passed. Catriona had once been wide eyed and innocent. How different from the wasted, thin, scared woman she had been the last time Helen had seen her alive.
The memory broke. Helen stopped thinking. But the US™ had stored it. The summer afternoon with the lemonade, the sun and the bubble tree was there for ever. Immortalised. And available to others for a price? Helen did not believe stored memories were personal. And that both annoyed and sickened her. But what could she do about it?
For a couple of years Helen had pursued a love/hate relationship with the Memory Bank. It was like itching a scab. She didn’t want to put things there but she didn’t want to forget. Well, sometimes all she wanted to do was forget, but she didn’t want to forget permanently. So she went through phases of storing vast amounts of personal memories on her bank and phases of cold turkey where she refused to think about the past. Except during those times there was really nothing else to do in the VCC except review those memories you’d already stored.
It was several years into her ULTIMATE® life before Helen worked out a way to co-exist with the system. Once she discovered that you didn’t have to talk out loud to get your memories transferred, she had always been suspicious that her private thoughts would transfer themselves to the Memory Bank. Eventually, through trial and error, she found that by sitting in her chair, eyes shut as if asleep, she could think her own thoughts, relive her own memories and if she had no credits left in her Memory Bank and didn’t activate any connection via her barcode they didn’t get stored in her Memory Bank. It only worked when she was out of credits though. So she tried to stay out of credits. Which was difficult because ULTIMATE® provided all their residents, even those in VCC Homes, with a basic level of memory credits per month. It was the ULTIMATE® pension. Helen tried to use them up on trivial memories so that she could save the really personal and private stuff for herself. She wanted to think for herself in her private world, not interact with the ULTIMATE® social environment. Lately, she’d taken to using Nick’s offer to ‘trade’ them. She didn’t know how he diverted the credits and she didn’t care. He wanted them, she didn’t. It was a good deal. And there was so little else she could give him.
Thinking for yourself was neither necessary nor encouraged in the ULTIMATE® world because the US™ could do it for you, or at least hold a repository of information that made personal thought unnecessary. And the past was an outmoded concept. History had been consigned to the trash bin, not even the recycle bin, and people who spent too many credits chasing historical detail could find themselves in hot water. Old people were given enhanced access to their Memory Banks as a means of keeping them quiet, but their interactions were also part of ADAS® system. There was a requirement for data. The likes of Helen could provide the data which would then be used to help them should they require the service.
The ULTIMATE® world came at a price. Re-inventing the present and paying for a future was only really possible where people remained ignorant of the past. The real past. Reality. That wasn't an ULTIMATE® concept. It was an ULTIMATE® product of course and could be bought with credits via the US™ like everything else. Like real plastic flowers.
Helen shook her head. Those kids thought that plastic flowers were real. Reality to them meant something you could hold in your hand, nothing more. Reality was the opposite of virtual. Virtual was the world they lived in, the world they embraced and reality was an outmoded concept, reserved for the likes of Helen. Nick's generation didn't have any idea of what a REAL flower was like because they'd never held a real flower. No one grew them any more. Why would you? When all life's interactions were via the virtual world who needed flowers shedding petals all over the place? In fact, it must have been quite extreme for them to actually spend credits buying her these ‘real’ plastic flowers.
REALITY: Definition. What is existent, or underlies appearances. Resemblance to an original. In common parlance, in reality means in fact.
And fact means whatever ULTIMATE® says it means, Helen thought. You didn’t even have to get into the existentialist or post-modernist concepts of reality. ULTIMATE® had blown them out of the water. It just didn’t matter any more what you the individual thought, or how you felt you stood in relation to the outside world. ULTIMATE® had rebranded reality the way it had rebranded everything else.
The real plastic flowers sat still on her shelf. Perfectly fresh, perfectly real, perfectly plastic. Mocking her. Proving that ULTIMATE® owned reality as well as everything else in 2030. Everything except what was in your head. And they tried to relieve you of that too, via the Memory Bank.
How had the world come to this Helen wondered? She remembered when Google and MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were the all singing, all dancing, must have lifestyle toys for a generation. How excited her son Torquil had been when he came back from a trip to his sister at college and started pouring out the incredible wonders of the world wide web circa 2004. How he’d begged to be allowed to use the computer for ‘social networking.’ To have a laptop in his bedroom.
‘Get real mum,’ he’d said. ‘It’s the future. You can’t run away from the future,’ with all the certainty of a fifteen year old.
‘And when will you ever have time to use this stuff?’ His dad had pointed out as they sat round the family dinner table. ‘You’ve school, then I need you round the farm…’
‘I’ll do it instead of TV,’ Torquil pleaded.
‘If you’ve time for TV you’ve time for study,’ Randall had pointed out. ‘ You’ve as much of a brain as your sister. You could go to college.’
‘I want to be a farmer,’ Torquil asserted, ‘like you, dad.’
‘Then you’ve no need for computers,’ Randall pointed out. Conversation over.
Helen was glad techno worship had been a fad Torquil had grown out of. He had enough concept of a real life to avoid the virtual temptations of MySpace, Bebo and Facebook in his impressionable early teens. And by the time he was seventeen and they were moving he had grown out of it. Or so they’d thought. Yet it had got him in the end.
‘Should we buy the lad a computer?’ she’d asked Randall back in 2004.
‘He can use the farm computer,’ was Randall’s response. ‘A computer is a tool remember, not an object of desire.’ He had smiled at her, sharing the memory of how they’d met, when computers were indeed objects of desire, which was lucky because they were pretty pitiful tools at that point in history.
Another memory stored in the Memory Bank. Another memory Helen often wished she could wipe away because the urge to look was too powerful and the viewing was too painful.
ULTIMATE® technology led the world towards a sparkling transformation. From their start point as a toy for adolescents in 2005, by 2020 social networks and personal vaults had become the intellectual equivalent of the progression from the riverbank through the twin tub to the fully automatic washing machine that washed at 15 degrees and never shrunk your clothes. How happy everyone was to embrace them. How everyone migrated their hard drives onto ‘clouds’ and let loose all their stored personal information.
Then it was not just information, it was their entire lives which moved into the virtual world. People’s facts and fictions all made it into cyberspace and the Memory Bank was born, ready for ULTIMATE® to register it and exploit it like everything else. Yet Helen still remembered when clouds were a feature of the weather, not a personal storage system.
Still, you couldn't do anything about it, you couldn’t change it and you definitely couldn’t fight it. Helen remembered being Torquil’s age and having a similar conversation with her dad.
It was 1975. She wanted heated tongs. She wanted to impress a boy and he was busy swooning over the girl with the curliest hair in class. It was war.
‘But dad, everyone has them,’ she employed the familiar teenage mantra.
‘What does your mum say?’ He employed the standard response.
‘She says no, but…’ Helen still hoped she had enough girlish charm to wind her father round her fingers. She’d always been a daddy’s girl.
‘Well, you can’t fight city hall,’ came the response.
‘I don’t want to fight anyone. I just want to get some hair tongs so I can curl my hair…’ Helen grumped.
‘And why is curled hair so important all of a sudden?’ her dad asked
‘Everyone has it… well, it’s cheaper than a perm..’ she tried. He wasn’t buying that one.
‘You have beautiful hair, Helen. You are beautiful as you are. Why try to change yourself?’
‘It’s for boys.’ Her mum came into the room, spoiling things as she always did.
‘It’s not for boys,’ Helen threw back, ‘it’s for me. For my self-confidence.’
‘I hope you aren’t the kind of person who has to style themselves with the herd in order to have self-esteem,’ her dad said in his best not angry but disappointed voice. ‘I thought we’d brought you up better than that.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Helen just avoided slamming the door as she stamped up to her room to indulge in some teenage moping before getting sidetracked into a good book. She never had curly hair. Nor did she believe her dad’s often repeated ‘city hall’ claim. Not then. She’d only bought that when she moved into the VCC home as a sixty year old, broken woman. By 2020 her own life experience had taught her that with ULTIMATE® you could try but you couldn't win. She had lived with that fact every day for the last ten years.
Today was her 70th birthday and Helen, with the face that in her youth may have launched a thousand ships, or at least turned a few youthful heads found herself crying for a world that no longer existed. A life that no longer existed, not just a life she could no longer have. It JUST DIDN'T EXIST. Memory was powerful but treacherous. And memory was not reality. Helen acknowledged that reality had been reinvented into ULTIMATE® reality, and knowledge and memories were the intellectual property of ULTIMATE®. Of course she had easy access to them at a reasonable price. And she was supposed to be grateful for that. Her only weak act of resistance was to keep her personal memories in her head, away from scrutiny. But this in itself made them worthless. She had nothing to share and no one to share them with and her private memories would die with her. What kind of reality was that? What meaning?
Helen had often measured herself up against nature and felt herself small. She remembered a sense of insignificance when, as a young woman, and then as a not so young woman, she'd stood on a deserted beach, or looked up at a night sky, or stood in the middle of a field or a forest, marvelling at the acres and acres of blue sky above her. Nature had been in charge then and even though only a fool would consider Nature benign, it gave you a sense of yourself in the world. Yes you were small, you were insignificant, but you were a part of something wonderful.
Yet ULTIMATE® had killed nature. Like history, it just didn't exist any more in any meaningful way. It was ULTIMATE® who had constructed and owned the lives of Nick's generation and all generations since. ULTIMATE® was the only wonder of the post-postmodern world.
Which left Helen as part of what was a dying generation with all the punch knocked out of them. It was proof that capitalism would get there in the end. Although ULTIMATE® had seen to it that concepts like capitalism and socialism no longer existed any more. In reality or in virtuality. ‘You can’t fight city hall, dad.’
Helen brushed her straight hair and decided she was just going to try and enjoy the company of the kids. Be sociable for once. What did they call it now? Live social networking?
It was worlds away from the last 70th birthday she’d attended. 1966. The family had made the trip to the Edinburgh New Town apartment of her Uncle Bert and Auntie Alice. It had been quite a trip for the family, across the newly opened Tay and Forth Road Bridges.
‘Daddy, how do they stay up?’ she’d asked. ‘Is it magic?’
‘No, Helen. Engineering,’ had come his response.
‘More cleverer than magic,’ she’d opined.
‘More clever,’ her mum had corrected.
And at Uncle Bert’s she’d been running up the flagstone pathway in her haste to greet them and tell them about the bridges. She tripped and fell and when she picked herself up, she saw them all laughing at her.
‘It’s not funny,’ she said. And they laughed all the more.
‘It’s not fair,’ she cried.
‘Innate sense of justice that one,’ said Uncle Bert. ‘She’ll make a great lawyer.’
Helen didn’t know what a lawyer was but she was certain she didn’t want to be one.
‘I want to be an engineer,’ she retorted and they all laughed even more.
‘You’ll have your hands full with that one,’ Bert told her dad.
And she remembered the musty old-people smell and the wing backed chairs and floral patterned china and textiles and the cake on doilies and how Auntie Alice had pressed a threepenny bit into her hand as they were leaving and whispered, ‘Buy yourself a sweetie.’
It was a long, long time ago. Helen wished she’d managed to get something better to offer the kids to eat than ULTIMATE® coke and ULTIMATE® cup cakes. But she’d left it too late and had to beg stuff from the kitchens. Somehow she’d forgotten you couldn’t just pop out down to the supermarket any more. She had always hated the fussiness of floral pattern suites but she would have given anything for a room like Uncle Bert and Auntie Alice’s in which to celebrate her 70th birthday.
Since she’d entered the ULTIMATE® Home, Helen had kept to herself. She mostly stayed in her room and avoided the shared spaces. Most people did, if they knew what was good for them. The lounge rooms were frequented only by those who had run out of memory credits and wanted to play ULTIMATE® BINGO to win some back, or who couldn’t be bothered with the work that involved and just wanted to witter or rant an incessantly pointless steam of consciousness. There was no meaningful social interaction, she’d quickly learned that.
The residents of Victim Homes were little more than guinea pigs for the latest ‘advances’ in ULTIMATE® technology. Like everyone else in the system their data was the only precious thing about them. But their data was ‘end of life’ data, with only two ways out, madness or death. Helen preferred to keep herself to herself. And her memories private. While she still had them.
But today would be different. Today she'd share her time and her life, for an hour or two, with her grandson and his friends. And they would have a nice time. It would be an experience which she could store in her own head, irrespective of what might make it into the Memory Bank.
In preparation for the party, Helen had moved the furniture around to try and gain most space, but whatever she did, even borrowing a utilitarian chair from Archie next door, didn't make the space seem big enough for four people. Not once the table she'd managed to acquire to put the food on was in place. Auntie Alice would be birling in her grave. Genteel Edinburgh New Town it was not, even though it had once been a five star hotel in a prime location.
Helen wished she could have got ‘real’ food. She still couldn't get used to the idea that ULTIMATE® food was in any way real. Oh yes, it was on the plate in front of you. It looked good, it tasted good (well, it tasted...) it even smelled good after a fashion – one gets used to anything after ten years but Helen's memory told her that it wasn't like the birthday food she had at her 10th birthday or her 21st birthday or even her 40th birthday. And on her 50th birthday, Nick had been born. Cakes and candles were for him from then on, though he didn’t even remember that now. He didn’t even know when his own birthday was. The Project Kids had no value for the personal. They were socially constructed beings in the ULTIMATE® world. Birthdays were part of a life before ULTIMATE® and the memories were not stored. She knew it wasn’t possible, but she had hoped the date just might stir something in him. It hadn’t.
‘Come on mum, blow out the candles,’ Torquil had shouted excitedly.
‘Yes, quick, before the fire brigade come thinking the house is on fire,’ Randall had added, jokingly as the bright glow from the forty candles the kids had painstakingly stuck on the birthday cake they’d made themselves stood on the table.
‘Before the wax burns the cake,’ Catriona added, concerned that her first great culinary effort would be spoiled.
It had been a simple birthday cake, a bit lumpy and heavy, but it had been made and shared with love.
Helen laughed. A cake with seventy candles. What kind of fire risk would that be? She sighed at the memory of thirty years ago. The family she had loved and lost. The ULTIMATE® world had certainly changed her reality. In the past she'd had hope for the future. Now she had none. Not for herself and more importantly, not for Nick, her sole living relative. She understood that this was Nick's world but she felt it was as hopeless for him as for her. That didn't seem right. She didn't know him well, of course, but there did seem some form of connection. Maybe he was just flattering her, but she thought she saw something of the curiosity of her own youth reflected in him. It was that curiosity which got him overdrawn on his knowledge credits every month and that was what kept him coming back to her. She filled a gap. She knew he was using her, but she was happy because if you turned it another way, it meant she still had something to offer. Something to give. Something real. So maybe there was hope for Nick. Everyone else she cared for was dead.
Back in 2000 she’d blown out the 40 candles and made a wish. In 2030 she couldn’t remember that wish. Even without a candle, surely at seventy years old she owed herself a birthday wish. Randall would have done something special if he’d been there. But he wasn’t. And because he wasn’t, nothing could ever be special in a world which had become less like living and more like existing and now seemed more like a living death than a life, virtual or real. She blew out an imaginary candle. Made a wish.
Her wish was, for one day, to live like she wasn’t afraid, wasn’t without hope, wasn’t just an inconsequential statistic in the ULTIMATE® system. To be real. Just for a day.