The technicians in Helen’s room were struggling with the US™. Clearly it was a software malfunction and they were hardware technicians. They’d had the thing off the wall, checked every circuit and run every diagnostic test possible on the biological components, and were one step off giving it a hefty kick as a last resort when the screen crackled, flickered and gave out a loud screaming stream of what might once have been called music but was now just a horrible noise (perhaps had always been horrible noise) and amidst a light show of flashing images came up the words
THE IMMORTAL HORSES
The technicians looked at each other. Bugger. Not another one of these. It was getting more prevalent and it was scary. It undermined everything they worked for. It was a hacking job par excellence from the cyber terrorists who threatened to destroy the ULTIMATE® way of life. Not that that was possible of course, but it did mean there was a big problem here. The system was compromised and many, many hours of form filling would be required before this US™ system could be off quarantine. They’d have to check the whole VCC building. It would send the old people off the edge. Old people were so uncompromising. And could complain so much. Even though they were here at the goodwill of ULTIMATE® and not paying for the experience like they should do, they would still complain. This could be weeks of work. Bugger.
The screen kept churning out the music till they managed to silence it, but the flashing messages kept on coming.
You’ve been hacked by
THE IMMORTAL HORSES
The technicians were just glad they’d been on their own when this happened. If the ‘client’ had been present there would have been even more admin to complete. And like everyone else, they just wanted to complete their days work so they could go back to the virtual lives they lived outside of the daily grind. The only option now was to pull the plug. Metaphorically speaking. Reluctantly, they quarantined the system for the whole building. And the US™ screen went blank again. One of them went off to find a supervisor to explain themselves to. The other waited for the return of the ‘client.’
When Helen and Nike returned to her room some half hour later (Nike wasn’t sure about his ßß™ access outside and didn’t want to incur Pryce’s wrath again by being off access two days in a row) they discovered that she was still without a US™. The technician apologized. Profusely. Which Helen found funny since she didn’t want the damned screen anyway, but nothing in the technician’s mindset could imagine the imposed quarantine was in fact doing Helen a favour. He explained, very slowly (because she was old of course) that it was a software malfunction and so they couldn’t simply replace the unit, they would have to shut down the whole zone and work on the software. The fault was receiving priority status and ULTIMATE® would get the smartest software technicians on it as soon as they could, who would work without break until the problem was resolved. But for now he stressed that it was vitally important that Helen must not, NOT, he repeated very carefully, try to switch on the US™. Helen assured him she would not.
The technicians left the building, cursing the VCC home who probably hadn’t updated their virus software and would doubtless blame budget cut-backs or overworked staff or some such. Someone’s head would roll but more importantly someone must fix it. The technicians were pleased that once they’d completed the admin, it wouldn’t be their problem any more. They’d done their job. Or tried to.
Of course the first thing Nike did when the technicians had left was try the screen on again. Why wouldn’t he? No one would know and the only way you found out how things worked was to find out how they broke. As he waved his barcoded arm at it saying
‘What’s wrong with you?’
The screen burst into life again with the words
You’ve been hacked by
THE IMMORTAL HORSES
Helen and Nike looked at each other. In silence. For a long time.
‘So who are The Immortal Horses?’ Nike asked. More in hope than in expectation.
‘Have you not been warned about them?’ Helen was surprised. She thought that The PROJECT⌂ would have warned the Kids about them, then on reflection, maybe not. Giving them an alternative world view would not benefit ULTIMATE® aims and so wrapped in cotton wool they would stay. Sometimes the level of ignorance ULTIMATE® required of their premiere generation amazed her. After all The PROJECT⌂ represented the vanguard, developing a template for what all people would be like in another twenty years. God help the world. Oh, no. Of course God couldn’t do anything, because he’d been appropriated by ULTIMATE® as well.
She wondered if she should tell Nick what she knew about The Immortal Horses. Without time to weigh up the possible consequences, she took a snap decision. She didn’t like
The PROJECT⌂, never had and this might be her only chance to try and reclaim him, if only that could be done, for reality. Whatever that was now. If The PROJECT⌂ rejected him (she wasn’t sure that was even a possibility) maybe he could have a real life again. As real as ULTIMATE® would allow. She decided to take the chance, even though a small voice inside her head told her it wasn’t her chance to take.
‘They are terrorists, seeking to destroy ULTIMATE®.’ She paused, wondering what response this would get.
‘What’s a terrorist?’ Nike asked, cursing that the US™ screen was broken just when he had some interesting questions to ask. He didn’t seem fazed. He didn’t have Helen’s concept of reality and danger.
‘Well. They used to say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…’ Helen weighed up whether it was worth pursuing this further.
‘Nan, don’t, you’re sounding like the knowledge bank. Just tell me, in straightforward terms.’
‘Terrorists are people who use violence as a method to try and overthrow a government.’
Violence? Government? Just so many more meaningless phrases for a Project Kid.
‘In this case, they are an underground organization, no one knows where they are based, and their aim is to get rid of the ULTIMATE® way of life.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ Nike sneered, ‘You can’t….’
‘Maybe so. But people with ideals don’t care about whether something is possible or not, they care about trying to change things. About doing something and if necessary, dying in the attempt.’
Nike was amazed. ‘Who are they?’
‘No one knows. If ULTIMATE® knew then they certainly wouldn’t still be around. They are a guerrilla operation and they must have found a way to hack into the US™ software. It’ll be interesting to see what they do from here.’
Interesting? Had his Nan lost her mind? Interesting? The overthrow of ULTIMATE®. No way. Nike realized he was sweating at the very thought of it. He felt guilty. Felt like he shouldn’t be here. This emotion thing wasn’t good. And he couldn’t stop it. He started to worry what would happen if Pryce got wind of this. What if Pryce had tried to interface with his ßß™? Then he thought of something far worse. What if The Immortal Horses had logged his ßß™ barcode? What if he was infected already? What if he was about to take that infection back to The PROJECT⌂? This was bad. Very bad. He needed to get out of there.
‘Nan. I have to go. Pryce will be wondering where I am.’
Helen wasn’t surprised by his response. He was a PROJECT⌂ product after all. She had had influence on him till he was seven, but despite the adage ‘give me a child till he is seven and I’ll show you the man,’ ULTIMATE® had done a masterful job in the last thirteen years of rebuilding her young Nick, creating him anew as a compliant if sometimes wayward ULTIMATE® citizen. Branded Nike. He must have been a challenge but then if they could crack it with the likes of Nick, they must be well on their way to complete success.
‘Okay, Nick. Don’t worry about it. You know where I am, when you have more questions. And after this is sorted, I’ll start work on the Memory Bank and the truth will be there, stored away, waiting for you to access.’
Nike had forgotten all about that; the Memory Bank, the past, the truth. He was now just thinking of how to save himself in the present. He didn’t know what to fear, he just knew that something very, very bad could happen very, very soon and he didn’t know how to avoid it. So he left.
And of course he was tracked all the way back to The Project House by The Immortal Horses.
Meanwhile, alone again, Helen turned her thoughts to her memories. Real, personal, private memories. After all, she had no excuse now. There was no US™ screen to reformulate or revision her reality. How odd it had felt being outside. Feeling the breeze on her face after so long. Breathing the air. It was nothing like the old days of course. She remembered when she had come to the VCC Home she had craved a room with a view over the park. She couldn’t afford it. She couldn’t afford any of it. She had to take what she was given. Her view, if she squinted, was towards the concrete monstrosity that had been the Scottish Parliament. Pretty soon she’d closed the blinds and left them closed. Forgotten that the outside world even existed. Because for her it no longer did.
And now, after ten years inside, she had almost forgotten that for nearly forty years she lived most of her life outside. How could you forget? How could it be that humans adapted to just about anything simply because they had to, not because they wanted to. She realised it was because she had given up on life. It had seemed the only thing to do. Because ten years ago, life had finally given up on her.
She didn’t want to remember the dull horror with which she faced her first night in the VCC home, knowing that things would never be good again. Knowing that now she was paying the price for the life she’d led. The price she had known would have to be paid one way or another, but which she’d hoped to put off… well.. indefinitely. But no, like all bad things, it finally happened. She had been numb to pain at that point, having lost Randall, lost Torquil, lost Nick.. lost everyone and everything that was important to her. She mused that in one respect, living was about losing. A constant journey of facing losses. Existence, she could not call it life, in the VCC home, was the final stage. The stage after loss. When there was nothing left to lose. But life just kept on going. Survival in an ULTIMATE® version of the Big Brother world.
And yet, once, it had all been so different. Really so very different. Once, she could never have predicted this end. She found it hard to focus. Hard to think in any order as thoughts swirled round in her mind, jumbling together like so many jigsaw pieces. She wasn’t even sure if all the pieces were from the same picture. The one thought, forcing all the others out, was the cake. A real birthday cake.
‘Happy Birthday, mum,’ Torquil kissed her and entreated, ‘close your eyes.’
She closed her eyes, enchanted by his excitement.
‘You can open them now,’ Catriona said as she came in bearing a birthday cake groaning under the lighted flame of forty candles.
‘Put it down, put it down,’ Helen laughed.
Torquil had turned out the lights and Helen was amazed how much glare there was from the candles.
‘Come on mum, blow them out.’Catriona could barely contain her excitement.
‘Make a wish mum,’ Torquil added.
She paused for merely a moment. What more could she wish for? And blew… and blew…. And they were out.
‘Don’t sing happy birthday,’ she begged, ‘you know how I hate that.’
So they didn’t. Just in case that was her wish.
‘Try the cake, mum,’ Torquil said, ‘I helped Catriona make it.’
‘I can see that.’ Helen laughed at the slightly wonky dimensions of the cake. She cut into it. Cut everyone big chunks and they ate it with relish. It was a bit uneven in density, but it tasted wonderful. It was made with the love of her children. At the time Helen thought it was a moment she would cherish forever.
Now she thought of the cake she had shared with Nick, Omo and Flora and marvelled at how good it had tasted. She used to grow and cook all her own food but realised she hadn’t tasted anything but ULTIMATE® food for ten years.
Like seventy, forty was a milestone birthday. Randall was determined they do something special. Helen resisted. She had everything she wanted. She didn’t need a fuss.
‘Get your coat on.’ Randall instructed her on the cold February afternoon in 2000.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
‘It’s a surprise woman,’ he said. ‘Do what you’re told without questioning for once in your life will you?’
‘I don’t like surprises,’ she pleaded.
‘You’ll like this one,’ he said.
He took the afternoon off work and they went to Cairnholy, an ancient burial ground which was one of their ‘special’ places. The views were spectacular and you could virtually guarantee you’d be the only people there. Certainly in February! The kids stayed at home and made the cake. Catriona baked and Torquil decorated. It was lucky Helen wasn’t there to see the mess they made of the kitchen. They obeyed their father’s instructions to clear it up, so she was none the wiser.
Helen enjoyed riding in the beaten up Landrover which was their main form of transport now. Fuel was becoming expensive and they tried to restrict their other car to trips to the supermarket once a week. Helen still shopped for the things she couldn’t grow herself. Supporting a family of four on the rocky, infertile land was an impossibility given the time she had spare after washing and cooking and cleaning. Even if she’d dedicated herself to it forty hours a week, in real terms it would still have been cheaper to go for the BOGOF offers at the supermarket. In 2000 the food price increases hadn’t yet kicked in. That would change.
Helen gave herself up to the warm, farmy smell of a vehicle more used to transporting hay and sheepdogs than people and stole a glance at Randall. It was sixteen years since she’d first seen him, strap-hanging on the tube but even now, especially now in this more familiar context, her heart skipped a beat when she saw those piercing blue eyes and that unaffected smile.
‘We are happy, aren’t we?’ she said.
He turned and looked at her, ‘Of course we are,’ he replied. ‘And we still will be forty years from now.’
Little did he know. Little did either of them know.
They got out of the Landrover at Cairnholy. They were alone, in nature. It was cold but bright and they stood together, marvelling at the link between past and present.
‘I don’t know how the kids did it,’ she mused.
‘Did what?’ he asked, afraid that she’d got wind of the cake making that was going on at home. She was a terrible woman to keep a secret from.
‘Camped out over the millennium.’
He laughed. Some six weeks ago the world had celebrated the onset of the year 2000 and Catriona and Torquil had demanded to be allowed to camp out in the ruined castle which sat in the home farm field, despite the cold weather. They spent the day building a bonfire and slept in their wellies. They crawled home frozen at five thirty, reckoning they’d given it a good go. Helen and Randall had gone and seen the New Year in with them and then headed back for home for a stiff drink and a warm bed. Helen was keener to see the sunrise on the first day of the year than spend her time drinking out the old year.
‘Wouldn’t you have been up for that at their age?’ he asked.
‘Probably,’ she said. ‘Would you?’
The conversation was cut short as the rain came down and they ran, laughing, back to the Landrover. Not before they were soaked of course. It had been bright when they set off and they weren’t wearing hats. Randall had taken his off deliberately because it was a holiday and a hat was one of the essentials of his daily working life on the farm. Helen hadn’t brought a hat, because she’d been surprised and hadn’t known where she was going.
It was nothing that a hot shower wouldn’t put right. Helen stood in the shower and let the hot water trickle over her and thought how easy it was for things to be put right. What did rain matter as long as you could get warm and dry? She towelled her hair and went downstairs. For cake. They were happy days. Helen wasn’t so foolish to think that all the old times were the good times, they’d faced their fair share of problems over the years, but today, just today, she wanted to remember the good times.
The year 2000 represented new hope for everyone, even farmers. Helen and Randall were tenant farmers in rural Galloway and like all farmers, struggling to make a living. They’d been there fifteen years and felt part of the landscape. Life in 1980’s London was a thing of the past. A story of a life that now seemed as if it had belonged to other people. Helen could barely remember it. She couldn’t completely disown London though, since that was where she met Randall, so there would always be one good, warm feeling to come out of it. But the best decision they ever made was to leave.
1985. They’d been seeing each other for about nine months. It was clear that things were going to go a step further. Helen thought Randall was going to ask her to move in with him. She was going to say yes. They were in bed, after another fabulous meal cooked by Randall. He leant up on one elbow and said.
‘I don’t want to do this any more.’
She was shocked. What did he mean? He caught her look of horror.
‘No..’ he said… ‘I don’t mean us.. I mean… this… London.’
‘Oh.’ She didn’t know how to respond. ‘But you have to be in London. For your music.’
‘That’s going nowhere,’ he replied.
‘I’m sure you’ll get another tour soon,’ she said, realising that a big part of her hoped he wouldn’t. She didn’t like it when he was away, touring. Not because she didn’t trust him. Because she loved him and wanted to be with him and they never seemed to have enough time together.’
‘I don’t want to tour. I don’t want to be living out of suitcases any more than I want to stay here. Do you have a dream, Helen? A vision of the future?’
‘I suppose so,’ she said, realising she’d never thought beyond being with Randall, wherever, however, forever.
‘And what is it?’ he asked. That was putting her on the spot.
‘Just to be with you,’ she said weakly, hoping that was enough.
‘Really?’ he sounded amazed.
‘Yes, really,’ she kissed him to prove it. ‘What’s your dream Randall?’
He told her a story.*The story he felt defined what he wanted out of life. The story which would change both of their lives forever. And then he launched into the plan. And within a year they were living it. A farm or smallholding, somewhere away from the rat race. A real life, together far away from London.
‘But I only want it on one condition,’ Randall had added.
‘What?’ she’d asked.
‘That you marry me,’ he said.
She was amazed. They’d never brought the subject up but she’d thought he was the kind of man who thought marriage an unnecessary restriction. A piece of paper. Meaningless.
‘Nothing I do with you will ever be meaningless,’ he replied when she told him what she’d thought, ‘but can we avoid the meringue dress stuff?’
She laughed. She had never been one of those girls who craved a wedding with a party and a dress and all the trimmings. Too much fuss. And nonsense. So they married quietly and cheaply and both sets of parents, though they didn’t like it, respected their choices. Both sets of parents gave them what they would have contributed to a wedding in the form of cash which, along with the small amount of savings they had, was enough to secure them the farm tenancy. Randall, ever the dark horse, had studied agriculture at college before becoming a musician, so he managed to convince the landlord that he had enough experience to make it worth a go. And there weren’t that many people foolish enough to want to go into farming in the mid 1980’s. It was always going to be a struggle. It was a struggle. But they faced it together.
The first challenge was Chernobyl. Soon after taking on the tenancy, and just before Catriona was born, the farm went under restrictions because of the danger of air pollution. That was just the beginning of it. Then BSE hit. The farm was mixed sheep and beef so they were as Randall so eloquently put it, ‘Screwed both ways.’
*for the story see appendix
They struggled their way back from that crisis, never quite believing the Blair government message in 1997 that ‘things can only get better.’ Randall and Helen lived in a world of reality where thing could always get worse. They did. Foot and Mouth in 2001. But they faced it, as they faced everything, together. As a family.
When Helen turned forty in 2000, Catriona, their daughter was fourteen and Torquil their son was eleven. Both were now old enough to be some use on the farm. It was a pretty relentless life however much they loved it. Had it been a good way for kids to grow up, Helen wondered? Memories started to flood back.
Catriona aged three experienced her first lambing with all the excitement children usually saved up for Christmas. She was shocked that all the lambs didn’t have names.
‘We can’t name them all, there are hundreds,’ Helen coaxed her daughter.
Randall observed the wavering lip and pulled Catriona up on his lap, beside a little lamb he was trying to bottle feed.
‘But you can name this one,’ he said.
Helen was amazed. Randall was not a sentimental man. He didn’t go in for pet names, knowing the practicalities of the farming life cycle far too well. He didn’t do baby talk or hiding of ugly facts… but he loved Catriona.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked him. The lamb in her own lap squiggled and squirmed. Catriona was just learning the toddlers divide and rule tactic and felt she had some room for negotiation.
‘And that one? She pointed at the lamb in Helen’s lap.
‘Okay. That one too.’ Randall capitulated. ‘But that’s all.’
Catriona beamed. She pointed at Randall’s lamb.
‘Lucy,’ she said firmly. And then pointed at Helen’s lamb. ‘Eric.’ She was adamant.
‘Okay. Lucy and Eric,’ Randall confirmed, ‘but Catriona, it has to be the other way round. This (he held up ‘Lucy’) is a boy lamb and this (holding up ‘Eric’) is a girl lamb.
‘Lucy and Eric.’ She was not negotiating any further. Gender meant nothing to her. So Lucy and Eric they became. And Randall taught Catriona how to feed them.
Helen remembered that Eric went on to become a good breeding ewe while Lucy went off for roast lamb. Every year after that, Catriona proudly named the orphans. Every year when the sheds by the house filled with odd calves; those whose mothers had died or who needed special attention, or who needed to be twinned; Catriona, and latterly Torquil, would stand by the gate for hours, debating names. Randall allowed it, as long as they fed the calves they named. There was Teeny, who was a runt and Tiny, who was even smaller, and Infinitely Small, who Helen swore was no bigger than Crogo, the biggest of the dogs at the time. Another year a calf was born blind and he became named Egor. He followed his foster mother around everywhere and seemed to get on quite fine without the gift of sight. Then there was Amber, her name reflecting her colour. They all went to the same fate eventually, but they were singled out, given special attention and special love for as long as they needed it, before heading out into the fields to become just another calf with a tag in its ear and a destination of the table. As long as people would still buy beef. Or until they faced death in the Foot and Mouth year. That was when the kids finally stopped naming cows.
Foot and Mouth changed everything. Even Helen found it hard to be happy amongst the stench of death and the fear of more death round the corner. The financial implications palled into insignificance compared to the visceral horror of it every day, all around. The world had changed. The millennial hope had gone. Big Brother had become a reality game show. The kids had watched it, more shocked than entranced that first season but pretty quickly became bored. Who wanted to watch a bunch of ‘losers’ sitting around talking about nothing all day and night when you could be out driving tractors or training dogs? This was the time before virtual living was more appealing than real life for young people.
Foot and Mouth was heartbreaking for Randall, but it proved the final straw for Catriona. As a fifteen year old, being surrounded by the stench of the senseless slaughter was too much for her. At sixteen she left home and went to college in Glasgow. Anything to get away from the memories of a beautiful life turned sour. Helen realized now, all these years on, that she’d never really thought about what it was that turned Catriona’s life around. But on reflection she supposed it was Foot and Mouth. Catriona, and all of them, were victims as much as the slaughtered cows and sheep, and it was a human cost that didn’t get counted. Without Foot and Mouth Catriona might have married a farmer, stayed in Galloway, been alive today. Randall would never have lost the daughter he loved so dearly.
At the time, Helen had accepted the sadness as she accepted all sadness. As the price she had to pay for having a perfect life. She understood that perfect didn’t mean everything always the way you wanted it. There had to be some lee-way. The external world could never be expected to bend totally to the individual will. She was happy with her lot. Randall had bemoaned the fact he couldn’t take them all on holiday that summer after the Foot and Mouth restrictions were finally lifted.
‘We never go on holiday,’ Helen said,
‘Maybe we need to, this year,’ he replied. ‘To get away from this… to get some perspective back.’
She knew as she looked at his careworn face, it was not about holidays. It was about losing faith in the dream. About not believing the story any more. About wanting something different, or something more.
‘Why go anywhere?’ she caressed him. ‘There’s nowhere I would rather be than here, with you and the kids. This is my life and I love it. We can get through it.’
‘What can you possibly love about this?’ he asked, a moment of depression engulfing him.
‘It’s enough,’ she replied. ‘We didn’t expect it to be easy, did we?’
‘Not easy,’ he agreed, ‘but not like this…’
‘Don’t do that,’ she said.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘It’s my dream too,’ she replied. ‘And my dream is that I’m married to a man I love beyond life itself. We have two healthy children and we live in countryside which never fails to take my breath away. Every time I go out with the dogs on a cold spring morning, even a wet wintry morning, I thank my lucky stars I’m not still fighting for my place on an underground train, living a pointless life chasing meaningless things.’
He laughed at her passionate outburst. He couldn’t help but laugh at her.
‘You’re an easy woman to please, Mrs Christie,’ he said.
‘Yes. I just need my husband to smile,’ she replied.
He smiled. It was enough. It was perfect. Even in the face of the future. The moment was perfect.
Randall was right, in many ways Helen was an easy woman to please. She didn’t want things, she didn’t even want experiences, in terms of trips or happenings; she just wanted to be able to live, to really live every day, being part of the nature around her, responding to the daily joys and emergencies that made up farming life. Chasing a cow down the lane. Fixing a gate when two bulls had faced up to each other across fields and when frustration got the better of them, simply charged through the barrier separating them, ignoring the fact that the barrier was two five bar gates which were reduced to matchsticks in moments. Staying up late and getting up early to help with the lambing. Struggling to get the ancient AGA to work so that the men had a decent hot meal every lunch time. This was enough for Helen. And if she could get a bit of time to hang on a gate herself, chatting with Randall while he tagged cows or dosed sheep, or to walk in the forest with the dogs, or gaze at the stars on a bright, crisp, clear, dark night round the back of the cowshed, then life was as near perfect as it could ever be in reality.
Helen opened her eyes and faced the magnolia walls once more. That was the thing with memories – real memories not the ones mediated by the US™ Memory Bank – you couldn’t control them. And sometimes they took you places you’d rather not go. You couldn’t just stick with the good ones because your mind wandered, trying to make meaning, make connections and the darker places stuck out just as vividly as the good ones. Perhaps that was how ULTIMATE® had become so successful. They presented a way of only keeping happy memories. Pre-washed and pre-packaged and in pretty shapes and colours. They offered virtual happiness but Helen preferred reality, however grim. That was why she would never fit in. Not here at the VCC Home, not anywhere in the ULTIMATE® system. She couldn’t fight city hall. But she didn’t have to take their handouts. In general ULTIMATE® were right in their belief that you could make people however you wanted them to be. What was perhaps more shocking was that they had more or less achieved their goal wholesale in a mere twenty years. Now, life was as ULTIMATE® said it was for nearly everyone. But Helen could not capitulate. And her birthday cake proved she was not the only one. The existence of The Immortal Horses proved that there were a few, a very few, who were still managing to buck the system. But for how long? And how could she find them?