E. HAPPY BIRTHDAY - RIP
Helen answered the knock on the door. Archie from next door stood outside, holding a square cardboard box.
‘It’s for you. Came to the wrong room.’
Archie was a man of few words. For one moment, just a short moment, Helen wondered if this was Archie’s inept way of giving her a present but looking at him more closely she realized he was simply annoyed that he’d been disrupted from his Memory Bank. Helen and her birthday were nothing to him.
‘Oh. Thanks. Sorry for the trouble.’
‘And I’ll have your chair back by seven.’
Archie peered round the door, ‘Not here yet?’
Helen shook her head.
‘Young people.’ Archie snorted and headed off back to his room, leaving Helen looking at the large, square cardboard box he had delivered. There was no sign of posting, no indication to where it had come from or what it was. She put it down on her table and was about to open it when there was another knock on the door.
‘Happy birthday, Nan.’
It was Nick, along with Omo and Flora. Fulfilling their promise.
‘It’s so good to see you.’ Helen found herself embracing all three of them. They all took it, though it was unclear which one of them was most embarrassed by the show of affection. It was clear, however, that Nick had primed his friends to indulge his Nan on this, her 70th birthday. He was still young enough to believe that seventy was quite an age, especially for someone in an ULTIMATE® Home who could not be expected to live much beyond seventy two. Statistically speaking. This was a significant event for all of them.
Nick cleared his throat. ‘We didn’t know what to get you, Nan.’
‘That’s okay. You didn’t need to get me anything. You being here is enough.’
‘Yeah, but a present. It’s traditional, isn’t it?’
‘Tradition. I hope you haven’t been wasting your credits finding out about tradition? No time for the past, eh?’
Nike shuffled awkwardly…
‘Anyway. There is one thing you could give me. Well, do for me, if you know how.’
Helen pointed at the US™. ‘It’s still playing up. I wondered…’
Omo butted in. ‘I’m sorry, we really don’t know how to fix this.. you need to get a technician.’
Helen laughed. ‘Oh no. I wasn’t wanting you to fix it. I was wondering if you knew how to..’ she whispered, ‘switch it off.’
There was a silence. Switch it off. Who switched off their US™? Could you do it? Why would you want to? It would be like turning off a part of yourself. Losing a fundamental part of your identity. Omo shuddered at the thought.
Nick laughed. ‘Well… we could try,’ he went up to the US™ screen… waved his hands around in front of it, fiddled around the side and touched a few things, seemingly at random. Nothing as exciting as a flash or bang happened, but the screen’s images scrambled, pixelated and, well, you might say died. At any rate it went blank.
Omo and Flora stared, amazed.
‘Is it off?’ Helen mouthed.
‘Why did you want it off?’ Nick asked loudly, smiling. He waved his barcoded arm at the screen, but no response.
‘Well, I’d say it’s off.’ Nick responded affably. ‘If it’s not robbing me of credits, that’s good enough for me.’
‘Thank you.’ Helen beamed at her grandson. ‘I was hoping it could be a day like the old days. A day without interference from ULTIMATE®. A real day. Just for once.’
Omo and Flora looked uncomfortable.
‘Fair enough.’ Nick was unfazed by her request. It was a small enough gift for his Nan. And after all, it hadn’t cost him anything. At least nothing he knew about.
‘It means, I hope it means, we can talk more… freely. And whatever questions,’ she looked at Nick, ‘you feel compelled to ask, I can answer without the inconvenience of you losing knowledge credits.’
Nike smiled at Helen. She was pretty cool, this old woman. He was glad he’d come. It might be fun after all. Certainly it was going to be different from the usual day spent doing ‘productive’ work as part of The PROJECT⌂. He knew that being a Project Kid was a privilege, but it didn’t feel like it most of the time. Then again, he didn’t have anything to compare it against. Not that he could remember.
They sat down. Awkwardly at first, the generations with nothing in common. And it was to break the ice that Nike asked the question, ‘What’s in the box, Nan?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’d forgotten about it.’ Helen turned her attention to the box resplendent on the table.
‘Is it a present?’ Nick asked
‘I don’t know. I suppose I should open it.’ Helen gingerly did so.
The kids sat there, in awe. A real live birthday present. What could it be? They all gasped, even Helen, when she opened the package and saw what was inside. It was a birthday cake. A big, round birthday cake, with icing and writing on it.
‘Oh my.’ Helen was speechless.
‘What is it?’ Flora asked.
‘It’s a cake. A birthday cake. Traditional, isn’t it, Nan?’ Nike was proud he knew more than Flora. And he was impressed by the size of the cake.
‘Is it an ULTIMATE® birthday cake?’ Omo asked. He thought perhaps this was something ULTIMATE® did for their old folks. Young people didn’t care about cakes, or birthdays or presents; they got all they needed and wanted in the normal course of interactions and ‘productive’ labour, but old people, they lived in a different time, it might be a nice gesture to do something to remind them of the old days…
‘No.’ Helen was stunned. ‘It’s real.’
‘Real?’ Nike rolled his eyes. What was it with his Nan and her bizarre understanding of the word real. Of course it was real. There it was, sitting in front of her. He looked more closely at it.
‘Hey, Nan, there’s writing on it.’ He read it out, ‘ Helen. 70. R.I.P.’ He paused, then couldn’t help himself, ‘what does it mean?’
‘R.I.P?’ Helen had tears in her eyes. ‘It’s a message Nick. A message from the past.’
‘How can that be? Where did it come from, Nan?’ Nike was confused. More confused than he usually was.
Nike was confused and Omo was feeling uncomfortable. Flora took charge of the situation. ‘Tell us about it,’ she said, ‘we’d love to hear.’
Helen took a deep breath and began to tell. ‘I don’t know where it’s come from. How could I? But the message makes me think it could be from your grandfather.’
‘But he’s dead, Nan.’
‘I know he is. But R.I.P… I don’t know who else..’ Helen couldn’t allow herself to believe that Randall might be alive, but she couldn’t come up with any other rational explanation. She dismissed the thought. She was just being emotional. It was silly. She was a silly old woman, confusing the past and the present.
‘What does R.I.P mean?’ Nike asked, thankful that he’d managed to disable the US™ screen. Otherwise he’d have lost half his month’s credits by now. This was too strange a situation not to ask questions.
‘It used to mean Rest In Peace,’ Helen laughed, ‘Yes. It would be something you put on a wreath when someone died.’
Omo squirmed. ‘That’s a bit sick. Sending you a cake telling you you’ve died.’ Omo was unsettled and really puzzled. What could it be if it wasn’t an ULTIMATE® cake? And if it was? There was a dark side to ULTIMATE® he knew that, even if people didn’t like to talk about it.
‘No, Omo. It’s better than that. R.I.P is also the initials of… are you sure that screen’s off Nick?’
‘Would you check?’
Nike asked loudly, ‘What does R.I.P stand for?’ and waved his barcoded arm at the US™ screen. Nothing. Not even a flicker. He smiled at Helen.
‘It stands for the Rural Interests Party,’ she said.
The kids looked blank.
‘What’s that?’ Nike of course. He couldn’t help himself.
Helen didn’t know where to begin. ‘Let’s cut the cake first, have a drink and I’ll tell you.’
That sounded like a good idea. They cut the cake. Each took a large slice. It was incredible. They had never tasted anything like it before.
‘That’s what I mean by a real cake,’ Helen said.
‘How can it taste like that?’ Flora was amazed.
‘It’s a type of cake called a Victoria sponge.’ Helen replied. ‘It’s made with eggs, real eggs and butter, real butter and flour and I’m guessing sugar beet, cause I don’t know how they would get cane sugar, and raspberries, real raspberries….’
‘It certainly doesn’t taste like any cake I’ve ever had,’ Omo said, licking his lips.
‘No. This is real food, made with real ingredients, not the synthetic stuff we usually eat,’ Helen smiled, ‘It’s a real taste of the past for you all.’
They polished off the cake between them. And even the tea they politely drank to wash it down with tasted better. Helen looked at the empty plate, as Nike licked the last of the raspberry off the knife.
‘No evidence left, that’s handy,’ Helen said. ‘Now, I’ll tell you about the R.I.P.’
They sat back, ready to listen. But not ready for what they were about to hear.
‘Before ULTIMATE® came to power, during the economic collapse, there was a last ditch attempt to find another way, to hold onto the old ways. Rural people, who didn’t want to lose their way of life, banded together. It started before that, with fuel protests and moved onto trade protests and…’
Helen noticed that the kids were looking blank. ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about do you?’
They shook their heads.
‘Doesn’t matter, Nan. Just keep telling us.’
‘Okay. Well, it used to be the case that people split into rural folk and urban people. And the urban people made money and consumed products and the rural people farmed animals and grew crops and lived with nature not with commerce. And even though agriculture became an industry and then was destroyed as an industry though BSE and Foot and Mouth and quotas and GM crops and finally ULTIMATE® creating the alternative to real food, by synthesizing everything, there were people who still wanted to live this real life. And they formed the Rural Interests Party, to try and protect their way of life.’
‘It started off peacefully enough. We lived on farms or smallholdings, and just didn’t buy into the consumer capitalist model. We tried to be self-sufficient and mind our own business and keep to ourselves, and for a while ULTIMATE® left us alone. But not for ever. I don’t know what changed things. Maybe all the urban people couldn’t let go of their dreams for a rural idyll and ULTIMATE® deemed that RIP made them uncomfortable and less compliant to the ULTIMATE® way of life. Maybe they just wanted the space we took up. It’s possible ULTIMATE® never saw us as a threat but just wanted everyone to be their consumers. Whatever the reason, things changed about 2014 and the ULTIMATE® way became hard to resist. Before then we were kind of left alone. They might call us names, like hippies, or gypo’s or something, but they didn’t really bother us and we didn’t bother them. Certainly by 2018 things turned ugly and people in RIP began to challenge the ULTIMATE® way of life.’
‘How?’ Nike couldn’t imagine how you challenged ULTIMATE®.
‘First it was just an outright rejection of citizenship. Peaceful marches, organised activities. But pretty quickly it turned to violence. I was never for that. I believed that if we just left them alone, they’d leave us alone and we’d get forgotten and things would be all right. Well, things would be pretty tough, because we had to take a big drop in our standard of living what with the new regime, but it was preferable to becoming part of the whole ULTIMATE® world. But that was when we thought there was a choice, an alternative. In 2016 RIP had split into two main factions, one which just dropped off the radar you might say, keeping their heads down and losing their rights, identities and profiles within the system and the other of which decided to confront ULTIMATE® head on, using their technology, tactics, and marketing. It was in danger of becoming a brand in its own right. But a brand that wasn’t ULTIMATE® which by that time was more or less unheard of.’
‘Your grandfather, Randall, didn’t like the idea that RIP might get sucked into ULTIMATE® the way everything else seemed to. He’d got involved before your mum (she looked at Nike) left and took you to The PROJECT⌂. He’d tried to steer a middle path, but after…. well, between 2016 and 2018 he got involved in what they called terrorist activities, him and a few others, but really he was just trying to protect what was his. Protect me, and your parents and you and keep us safe, away from ULTIMATE®. But the problem is, when you challenge a system like that overtly, they come looking for you. And they did.’
‘What did they do?’ Nike asked.
‘Well, they burned our farm and took away your grandfather and…’ Helen paused, still unable to say it, ‘and killed him. They sent back his watch with a message telling me that he was dead.’
‘And my dad?’
‘Do you remember your dad?’
‘I’m not sure. I think I might. I haven’t thought about it in years.’ Nothing in Nike’s PROJECT⌂ life encouraged him to think about this past. He had no memories of it in his Memory Bank and his few questions were always blocked. But he had a sort of shadowy feeling, somewhere in his brain, that told him he might remember something, if he tried hard enough.
‘There’s time for that. Not now. I can tell you things about him Nick. But I don’t want to get you in trouble. We’ll have to be careful. For now, you need to know that your dad did not want you to go to The PROJECT⌂. He and your mum split up over it.’
She took a deep breath, trying to keep the raw emotion sparked off by the memories under control.
‘Your dad went off looking for your grandad, but when he came back, he assured me that grandad was dead.’
‘Killed by ULTIMATE®?’ Omo couldn’t believe it. ULTIMATE® had saved the world, not killed innocent people who just happened to disagree with them. If Nike’s grandad was killed by ULTIMATE® he must have done something pretty wrong. But Omo realized that now was not the time to voice this opinion. Best keep his mouth shut and see what happened next.
Helen continued, ‘Yes, by ULTIMATE®. I know it’s hard for you to understand now, even more than ten years on, because they don’t broadcast it around any more but the ULTIMATE® death squads were real and very, very efficient. And they still exist.’
That was scary. And probably not true. Omo couldn’t believe it. Helen was old, probably going senile and certainly telling him things he didn’t want to hear. Without any sort of proof. Now he understood why she’d wanted the US™ screen off. The US™ screen wouldn’t corroborate anything she was saying. He was sure about that. He might even ask some questions later, on his own, just to be sure.
‘And what happened to my dad?’ Nike wouldn’t let it go.
Chip off the old block there. No wonder he was always in trouble, Omo thought. He looked at his flatmate with new eyes. He didn’t want the trouble to spread his way, and he was beginning to think this was inevitable. How did you go about changing your living accommodation? Pryce would know, if he ever dared to ask him.
‘Well, after your mum left, taking you to The PROJECT⌂ he was gone for months looking for your grandad, and when he came back he tried to get the farm working again, but it was hard and his heart was no longer in it. I helped where I could, and we struggled on for a couple of years but then in 2020 he disappeared too. They told me he’d drowned himself. That’s when I checked myself into an ULTIMATE® home. My life was over. There was no hope. I’d lost my husband, my children, my grandson… what was there to fight for any more? I’m not proud of it, but I was ill and frightened and… I couldn’t see a way to carry on. I gave in. I know it.’
‘I think you did the sensible thing.’ Flora hadn’t spoken in a while, but she had that girl’s knack of trying to make sure that everyone felt comfortable. Omo was relieved. He knew someone should speak but he didn’t know what to say. Nike looked stunned. He was still trying to compute the information.
‘Well, I did what I did, and I’ve been rotting here for the last ten years. And then, today…’ Helen pointed at the empty cake box. ‘This. A sign.’
‘But what’s it a sign of?’ Nike was bursting to know.
‘I don’t know. Maybe you will help me find out?’
‘How? How can I find out?’
‘I really think we should be going,’ Omo finally spoke. He knew this was getting out of hand. He knew Pryce wouldn’t like this. Come to think of it, he didn’t know if Pryce had even sanctioned this visit. They could be in big trouble already and they were certainly going to be in bigger trouble if they hung around here any longer. He just knew that. And however much he liked Nike, this was out of his league. Omo just wanted a quiet life.
‘Yes, yes of course you must go. You don’t want to waste your time here with an old lady’s memories,’ Helen smiled. ‘It was good of you to come. It’s certainly been a… memorable birthday.’
The kids got ready to go. It felt like a balloon had been deflated. Not that they knew what balloons were. No one needed balloons these days. No parties, no balloons. But they had a sick feeling in their stomachs that couldn’t be explained by the rich, real cake. A feeling like something good had turned very sour, and a lack of understanding why it had happened. The feeling might be described as fear. It was an emotion that ULTIMATE® was trying to breed out of the Project Kids. Like all emotions. What did they need emotion for? Emotion wouldn’t make them more ‘productive’ after all.
Omo made sure that he avoided a repeat of that embarrassing embrace by scooting out the door as quickly as he could. Flora submitted to a peck on the cheek from Helen but followed him as fast as was polite. Nike hung back.
Helen held onto him. Kissed him. And somehow, he wasn’t embarrassed. She also put something into his pocket as she whispered to him.
‘Come back. On your own. I want to talk to you about this. I think this could mean your grandfather is alive. I need your help. Please.’
Looking back on it, as they sat in their common room later, Nike couldn’t believe what had happened that afternoon. None of it seemed plausible or real by any definition of the word he could comprehend. But he put his hand in his pocket and felt the watch Helen had put in there. His grandfather’s watch. He didn’t dare take it out while Omo and Flora were in the room but he was going to look at it as soon as he was on his own. And he was going to go back to his Nan to find out the truth. That brought him up short. The truth. What was truth? What was real? What was his Nan about to get him into?
TRUTH: Definition. The quality of or state of being true. What is accepted as true is what is in accordance with fact or reality.
Nike realized that these definitions were all just part of ULTIMATE®’s way of getting more ‘productive’ work out of you. Using up more of your credits going round and round in circles. Defining and re-defining things in terms of each other ad infinitum. Pointless. Meaningless, as Flora kept telling him.
Helen sat alone after the kids had gone trying to make sense of what had happened too. Things hadn’t turned out the way she’d expected, anticipated or planned. The cake had brought a random element into proceedings. With ULTIMATE®, life was predictable, and today had certainly not been predictable. She thought about the cake itself. It was surely a sign. A message proving that somewhere, somehow, someone from RIP was still active and still remembered her. Wanted her to know that. Wanted something from her? But what? She didn’t dare to hope that Randall could be alive, but someone, somewhere had something to tell her. And this was the first contact. She’d have to be very careful though. She had no idea what she was getting into. Or what she was about to get Nick into. But the boy had a right to know. Surely. About his family. About the other life. The world that ULTIMATE® had tried to kill. The world his mother had sold him out of. You might say she was giving her child a chance of a better future, but the way Helen saw it, her daughter in law had sold her grandson, to a live experiment. And that was wrong. Helen didn’t know how she would give Nick the information that far from giving him up to The PROJECT⌂ to ensure he lived a better more privileged life, Lauren had sold him for a fix of drugs. But she knew one day she would have to. The memory was every bit as shocking as the original event.
They were at home one day late in 2016. Torquil was desperate but not as desperate as the gaunt Lauren who needed her next fix.
‘You can’t take him,’ Torquil pleaded, knowing that Lauren could and would do whatever she wanted. She always had. ‘Dad, stop her.’
‘I’ve got legal rights,’ Lauren spat. ‘He’s my son. He deserves to live a proper life, not the weirdo alternative life you people are subjecting him to.’
There was a standoff in the sitting room. The young Nick became more and more distressed as he was tugged between his parents, his grandparents shocked but unable to intervene.
Lauren held her son fiercely. ‘I’ve got ULTIMATE® on my side,’ she said, showing Randall the contract she’d signed.
‘It should have been signed by us both,’ Torquil said.
His father showed him the contract. With his name on it.
‘I never signed it.’ Torquil was blazing. ‘I would never…’
‘If you don’t let me take him, I’ll make sure that ULTIMATE® know all about you and….’ The threat was unspecific but it was enough. There was nothing reasonable people could do in this unbelievably unreasonable situation. Clearly Lauren would stop at nothing.
‘Help me, dad,’ Torquil begged.
‘We have to let him go.’ Randall replied, stern and shocked.
And within minutes Lauren, and a confused Nick, were gone.
That was when the cracks really began to show. The first time Randall couldn’t save his family from ULTIMATE®. The first time a son realised his father wasn’t invincible. The first time Helen thought her father might be right that you can’t fight city hall.
Helen was woken by a knocking on her door. It was a somewhat irate Archie, looking for his chair. It was seven thirty and she’d promised he’d have it back by seven. Not that he needed it for anything, but it was his property and she should have returned it.
All evidence of the cake was gone. Archie noticed the blank screen, however.
‘I’ll report that to the wardens,’ he said.’ You don’t want to be without a functioning screen.’
Little did he know how much Helen wanted, no craved, being without a functioning US™ screen. How much she wished she was back at the farm, away from the ULTIMATE® prison they called a home. Free. In reality. Not just as a concept. Day by day, to see the sun, feel the wind and rain against your skin free. Not as a memory. As today. Every day. The cake proved that somewhere, somehow, there were people experiencing this. Who ever made the cake must have chickens, cows, a plough for the wheat field. Seeds and fertilizer, and maybe a dog…. It wasn’t just a dream. Someone was still living this life. And they knew where Helen was. And they cared that she knew.