Of all the things that ULTIMATE® had stolen from her Helen thought that, apart from freedom, the seasons might be the one she missed the most. Freedom could be reduced to a concept, even a relative concept, but the weather stuck with you. At least it did with Helen. And the lack of seasons was like living without the taste of real food. She couldn’t believe she’d got used to both over the last ten years. It was wrong. Seasons didn’t mean anything in the ULTIMATE® Home, or indeed anywhere, any more. And yet Helen clearly remembered when climate change was the pressing concern for humanity. ULTIMATE® had achieved its victory over climate change the same way as it had over everything else. It had simply caused it to cease to exist. People just didn’t have to worry any more. They were hooked into a virtual world. If they wanted a tan they could get it without ever having to worry about the sun. And all the harmful rays were blocked out. But who even wanted a tan these days? Why would it matter? You lived more through avatars and virtuality than reality anyway it seemed, so what did it matter what you actually looked like. Who was going to see you?
Helen’s favourite time of year had been what most people would consider winter, the months between October and February. The months, that in Scotland at least, may have been perishingly cold, but they also brought clean, clear air along with a sharpness and a brightness to the sky. Helen didn’t mind being cold. She had always found her brain worked better in the cold, and her body preferred the option of putting on more clothes than the heat of summer where there was nothing you could do to restore a temperature imbalance. Everyone had always laughed at the layers she wore as standard between October and March.
‘Mum,’ Catriona used to say, ‘You look like a tramp with all those clothes on.’
‘I’m warm,’ Helen replied. ‘Warmer than you with that skimpy little top on… it’s December you know.’
‘Thermals and two pairs of socks is the rule,’ Randall laughed, ‘October to March.’
‘Don’t forget your scarf,’ Torquil chided his sister when she left for college.
‘I won’t need a scarf,’ she replied, ‘or thermals’ as she unpacked them from her case.
‘It’s Glasgow, not the Bahamas,’ Helen had pointed out.
On this point Randall agreed with her, and took Catriona out to buy her a decent anorak.
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather,’ he said, ‘only inadequate clothing.’
Catriona took the coat. And the scarf. But she drew the line at the fingerless gloves her mother packed. That was too old lady. No way. She’d freeze her fingers to the bone rather than wear fingerless gloves.
Helen knew that dressed properly you could be warm enough to take advantage of the winter sunshine spreading over the blue, blue skies of Galloway, or Moray. It was a time when you felt more at one with nature than any other time of the year. And it was funny, because people who didn’t like winter thought of it as a dead time. They had to put Christmas in the middle, a party to help you ‘get through’ the worst of it. Helen had never had much time for Christmas. Or for winter as death. Nature held death as part of a cycle, not as the end. Trees didn’t die in the winter, they went to sleep and woke again in the spring. But even sleep wasn’t the right description. Helen loved trees in the winter more than at any other time. She didn’t need evergreens for comfort. She loved the bareness of the branches, showing you a vision that was lost, covered up during the summer months. Helen always felt that in the winter you saw things as they really are. Stripped back to reality. About as far away from the ULTIMATE® world as you could imagine. That was a world without clarity, without simplicity, without reality; a world where everything was covered up by something else and nothing was simple or real. How could it be? Everything existed only to be a part in a great project, the ULTIMATE® scheme of things. The world how God might have arranged it, if God had existed and had little respect for people or humanity.
Helen sighed. You couldn’t put the kind of feeling she had for seasons into a Memory Bank. They were a different kind of memory. Deep seated ones. Intensely private experiences of sight, sound and smell. A classic example of the fact that memories isolate. This experience of trying to lay them out for another person to share or make meaning from them had only shown her that it was an impossible task. Memories can’t mean anything to anyone other than the person who experiences them. Even shared memories must be suspect because everyone experiences things in an individual way. No wonder ULTIMATE® wanted to control memory. It seemed to Helen that memory was the random element which UTheory∑® sought to undermine. It was the bit which made humans human and what did ULTIMATE® care for humanity?
Helen had first questioned memories in the context of her mother’s illness. She had ‘died’ of Alzheimer’s a good three years before she died in person. Her dad had stuck by her all that time. It was a painful experience and he barely survived a year afterwards himself because of the toll it took.
Those years had been terrible for all of them, watching a woman become distanced, then confused then isolated before finally dying and giving them all a painful peace.
‘Sing with her,’ Helen’s dad had entreated her, on one of their all too infrequent visits. ‘She’ll respond if you sing.’
But Helen was shocked by the fact that her mother only wanted to sing nursery rhymes and children’s songs. Repeatedly. To excess.
‘Come on mum,’ she said, ‘enough is as good as a feast,’ when she’d endured ‘I saw a mouse, where, there on the stair’ fifteen times. Her mother didn’t recognise her own favourite catchphrase and Helen felt mean using her advantage. A memory that worked.
Her mum started to cry. Her dad picked up the song, ‘a little mouse with clogs on, well I declare…’
Even though he’d done this every day for a week. Non stop. Helen realised how much her dad loved her mum, even though her mum wasn’t there any more, even though he was playing to a stranger who just wanted to sing stupid songs. She had a new found respect for him. But she felt sorry for him too.
‘Dad.’ Do you have to?
‘It keeps her happy,’ came his simple reply. And he winked at her. ‘Can’t fight city hall, eh?’
Helen wondered how her parents would have responded to the ULTIMATE® cure for Alzheimer’s, which came too late to save them. Dementia was the next biggest social problem after climate change in 2012 and before long ULTIMATE® had found a cure. It was one of the factors that sent them mainstream. The ‘cure’ came in their creation of the US™ screen, backed up by its archives. An appropriate application of a technology that would take over the world. That would become the world. In this context it was known as ADAS® (Advanced Dementia Adaptive system) It worked. Quickly world consensus was to buy into the programme. They forgot the corollary – at any price and just signed on the dotted line. Problem solved. For now.
ADAS® worked like a dream. In more ways than one. People with dementia got upset because they couldn’t remember things. ULTIMATE® took their memories at early diagnosis and stored them in an easily retrievable way, so that even if their memory span was less than five minutes, they could have streaming memories constantly either updating or circulating, to keep them happy.
The ends justified the means. Faced with a way to keep the aging population happy in their dementia, no one questioned the nature of the memories that were being pumped constantly through the US™ screens to the people formerly known as sufferers, now known as consumers of enhanced experience. No one wondered whether in fact ULTIMATE® cut corners, imported and imposed fictional or virtual memories on people who could no longer remember accurately their own personal reality. What would ULTIMATE® care about veracity? They were in the process of dismantling the whole concept of personal meaning and memory was just another tool they had to bend to their new systems need.
Helen firmly believed that memory was in some way tied deeply to personal identity. And now she was facing the fact that you could never transmit your memories accurately. You could never properly communicate your inner self with the external world. It was impossible. Fundamentally every man is an island. Even if the images stayed on the US™ screen for ever somewhere in ULTIMATE® archives; somehow what was real was locked inside her head, her soul, and on her passing, the memories would die with her. She was not afraid of dying, though she had experienced enough death to have a deep respect for it; but she did feel a terrible pang of sadness whenever she realised that on her death, her memories would be lost for ever.
Her mother’s condition had served to convince her that one fundamentally existed only in one’s own head. A created ‘you’ existed in the heads of everyone you knew, and in that sense you continued to live even after death. Personal identity was private and time limited. Social identity was eternal and largely outwith one’s own control. And as such, to Helen, valueless.
The one challenge to Helen’s theory was in the case of love. While both she and Randall despised social identity, in some profound way she felt they shared a personal identity. Maybe this was what being soul mates meant? With Randall, she’d felt a kind of connection where at times she really believed that another human being had got inside her head and understood who she really was. And she’d felt that she really knew him too. The boundaries of personhood were smashed. Or so she’d felt. Now, without him, as she confront her ‘shared’ memories, she was left wondering if she had ever really known him, or if he, like everyone else, was to a great degree a projection of her own ideas and thoughts. Had she ever, for instance, really understood the importance of RIP to Randall?
‘What’s changed your mind?’ she’d asked as he went out to join the group he’d always sworn away from. ‘You’ve never been interested in politics.’
‘I have to get involved,’ he’d said. No more explanation.
She had been left to make her own meaning. At the time she’d been jealous of the organisation that took him away from her. Now, looking back, she thought it the desperate act of a desperate man.
The Rural Interests Party had sprung out of groups as diverse as the Countryside Alliance, Farmers for Action and the Trade Justice Movement. Randall had always been cynical of the whole ‘game’ and he had learned through the agricultural disasters that preceded the economic collapse that society would sacrifice individuals without a care in order to keep capitalism working. Indeed his own family moving to Moray might have been seen as an acceptance of defeat. They had moved out of society back to a condition of self-sufficiency which turned its back on the concept of community. His mantra had been, ‘We need to protect ourselves above all.’
Helen had agreed with him. ‘You’re right. I’m tired of trying to fit into a society which offers us nothing but debt.’
‘It’s not about money,’ he said.
‘I know. But… I feel, well, like the outside world doesn’t want anything we have to offer,’ she complained.
‘It doesn’t,’ he responded. ‘and you can’t expect it to. We aren’t part of the system so you can’t expect the system to value us. We’re on our own. It’s the only way to be free.’
She’d questioned his definition of freedom.
‘In our world, Helen,’ he’d replied, ‘the only freedom lies in freedom from control. And this freedom comes at a price.’
The price was isolation. She didn’t mind that. He taught her not to care about the financial poverty.
‘Think about it,’ he’d said. ‘If you don’t believe in the moneyed system, how can you strive for money? If you’re not willing to buy into it, or buy it, you don’t have to worry that you can’t afford it. It’s not about money it’s about freedom. About living a life.’
She agreed with him. You had to find a way to live as far as possible without money and stay as far below the parapet as possible. That was freedom. But it wasn’t always possible. Not when they came looking for you.
They managed to live the dream for so long. So why had he gone with the RIP? She couldn’t square the two things, even now. The nagging doubt remained that it had been a knee jerk reaction at the guilt Randall felt over the death of Catriona. But that didn’t make sense. He’d first joined in 2011. He wanted to make a difference then. Had he seen the future? Was he trying to protect his children from the future? Had that taken priority over their present freedom? Perhaps Randall joining RIP had been an act of love to Catriona and Nick and Torquil, and not about her at all. A duty to the external future not the personal present. It shocked her that she felt jealousy. She didn’t want him to love them as much as he loved her. She wanted to have always been the first in his heart. He’d always been first in hers. He still was.
Helen wished she could go out for a walk in the woods and think clearly. She remembered that it was out on long lone walks with the dogs that she had done a lot of clear, calm thinking to a purpose and for the first time she realised that being cooped up in an ULTIMATE® Home might have taken more than a physical toll on her. Even that walk with Nick the other day had given her a sense of her brain coming back to life. She had walked, three times a day, every day for nearly thirty five years; and each walk while individual had become somehow one walk, which she could still remember clearly. Or maybe there were several walks, which changed with the season. The walk she remembered most clearly was the winter walk.
February. A clear, clean, crisp, bright day. Strong sun overhead. Crisp snow underfoot. The last of the snow, shimmering like diamonds and crunching like glass. Around it the ground, damp and with a browny tinge to the greenness, like it was exhausted from lying under snow and needed a few days to get over the hangover before it would grow its way into spring. The chill on the outside of your nostrils. The feeling of being enveloped by a purity filtered within the stillness. Breathing in the sharp cleanness while walking with mouth open, sucking it in till it filled your whole body. Helen didn’t like ice-cream but she always imagined this feeling to be similar to that of the enjoyment of ice-cream, yet on a larger scale. Filling your whole body with clean, cold air was one of life’s greatest pleasures.
And when she wanted a break from walking, she could sit up her tree. Even as a fifty year old woman, she would sit up the tree she would never describe as ‘her’ tree, but more accurately as the tree she ‘belonged to’; a huge beech in a row of similar trees which looked out over the south west of the land they owned in Moray. Here, every day, she could look at a view that was comfortingly the same, giving her a sense of rootedness, but at the same time, every time you looked something was different, like a living version of the children’s picture puzzle ‘spot the difference’. It was in the hollow of this old tree that Helen had always wanted and imagined having her ashes scattered so that somehow, after she was gone, she could be part of the tree’s natural cycle. That would be life enough for her once her physical life was over. As she committed the memory to the Memory Bank, she wondered how she had forgotten that? How had she lived ten years without that memory being in the forefront of her mind? How had she lived without the view?
‘Want to go to the beech?’ she’d asked a three year old Nick.
‘Bucket spade,’ he’d said hopefully. He thought he knew what the beach was. He’d been there with his mum and dad last summer.
‘No. This is Nan’s beech,’ she said, ‘it’s better.’
He ran along behind her and laughed and laughed when they arrived at the beech trees. He clapped his hands and constantly demanded to be taken to ‘Nan’s beech.’ He learned to climb the tree after his Nan and perch precariously on her knee looking at the view. He learned how to name things. And he learned that you could make up your own, special names for things. Together they saw Randall ploughing in the winter.
‘Grandad make patterns,’ Nick said.
They saw the lambs and piglets in the spring.
‘Babies dancing,’ he called it.
They saw the crops grow in the summer and the harvest in the autumn.
‘Chips and porridge fields,’ he called them.
Going to the beech with Nan was a specific part of his life, with a meaning unlike that for other children, for whom the beach meant only the traditional sand and sea and salt and ice-creams. As she committed the memory to the US™ Memory Bank, Helen wondered if it would spark something in Nick’s own memory. She wished so. She hoped so. She felt that it was something he’d been robbed of and she wanted to give it back to him. Even if it was her memory rather than his. It was a start.
Being at one with nature was being a part of the seasons. This, for Helen, was one of life’s most profound truths. One which no ULTIMATE® Memory Bank could store and no US™ screen steal from her. If only she could get back to the countryside and take Nick with her. She wondered what the countryside would be like now. ULTIMATE® had no need for it really. The population was more or less stabilised. People were used to living in smaller spaces, closer together and travelling less, so there were still vast tracts of land un-used. Helen imagined the unmanaged countryside may have reverted to a state more familiar in ancient history. Rural Scotland might be more beautiful and fruitful than it had been for generations. And here she was, stuck in a magnolia box, ruminating on what she’d lost. Why?
She had previously just accepted that her life was over, that things had changed, that there was no choice and no going back. But was this so? Could she make a life for herself back ‘out there’ outwith ULTIMATE®? People must be doing it. The people who sent her the cake for example. They had sent a birthday cake and the promise to fulfil her wish; the possibility of an alternative way. It was a moment of clarity and she felt she must act.
Moments were more than memories. Moments were when life became as it did on those crisp winter walks, clear and bright and clean. When it became obvious what the right thing to do was. And the only path was to act on it. This was one of those moments. She didn’t know how she would achieve it, and she knew she couldn’t just walk out of the ULTIMATE® home that minute, which was what she felt like doing, but she knew that she WOULD walk out of there and she would find what was left of the RIP and if not resume her old life, begin a new one, not counting the cost.
For ten years she had been sucked into the lie that winter meant death. That she was at the final stage of her life, there was no spring, no newness to look forward to. But now she realised that she was in a state of February and she could move forward, rejuvenated, if only she would have faith and courage and make that move.
Helen had had such moments of clarity several times in her life before. The moments flashed from her mind. …. Standing on a platform at Tottenham Court Road tube Station with a head cold, on her way home from work, wondering what she would do if this was the last day of her life? And realising she would just go home and sleep…Sitting in Acton Park looking at the trees and realising that trees, not money made her happy….Seeing Randall for the first time and knowing he would be the most important person in the rest of her life….Sitting in a quarterly sales meeting realising that everyone else cared about the figures and she was just aching to go outdoors….Holding a dog with epilepsy in her arms during a seizure and realising their relationship had taught her more about caring and communication than any person ever had. The moments and the memories could mean nothing to anyone but her. But to her they were a fundamental part of her being.
She consolidated what she intended to be the last set of memories she committed to the US™ screen. She’d given ULTIMATE® enough of her life. She hoped she’d given Nick enough to lay a path for him. Now she just wanted to leave the ULTIMATE® Home. Like Lao Tzu, just disappear into the mountains for ever. She was sure now that it would happen, in time. She turned away, to make a cup of tea.
The US™ screen alerted Helen to an incoming message.
‘Nan, It’s Nick.’ For the first time Nike didn’t mind saying that name out loud. Standing next to Troy, he finally felt a sense of belonging, purpose, identity, family. He wanted to share this with Helen.
‘Nick, how.. where are you? Is something wrong?’ Something didn’t seem right but Helen couldn’t work out what it was.
‘I’m with dad,’ came the response.
‘My dad. Your son… he’s here….’
The connection was lost.
‘What happened?’ Nike asked Troy.
‘Sorry Nick,’ Troy replied, ‘she can’t be allowed to see me. No one can see me. If ULTIMATE® could get a fix on me, they could find out more about The Immortal Horses than we want them to know. It would compromise us, it would compromise the RIP and….’
‘Yes, what about the RIP? Do they still exist… Did you send the cake? Is my grandad alive?’ The questions tumbled out of Nike and he knew he wouldn’t get them all answered, not right away. He looked in Troy’s face and he knew it. He had moved into a parallel world where information was precious and couldn’t be obtained by ‘productive’ work or credits. It would only be given when earned through trust. But what did he have to do to gain that trust?