Sitting In A Tin-Can, Far Above The World

Last Saturday saw the 49th anniversary of the first moon landing…

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They were gone.

Michael Collins watched gloomily as the Eagle moved away from the Command Module, then pirouetted in front of it. Collins knew, of course, that that was part of the plan, that it was being done so that he could inspect the Eagle for any damage, but found it hard to fight down the feeling that Armstrong and Aldrin were just rubbing it in, like Cinderella’s sisters sashaying in their new dresses before her, before the Ball.

At least Cinderella had eventually ended up going too, thought Collins. No such luck for him. No Fairy Godmother was going to appear, change the Command Module into a landable space-buggy and six space-mites into giant tyres, or change his massive boots into glass slippers, though that last bit was probably just as well.

The Eagle after separating from the Command Module

Collins was startled from his reverie by Houston asking if all was ok with the Eagle. He scrutinised it quickly and expertly. “Columbia here,” he said. “Eagle is good to go.”

So it went. And wouldn’t be back for twenty- eight hours.

He had been so excited when he heard he’d been picked for the crew, for the mission which was THE ONE, the one where they would finally walk on the moon. Then he had realised that he was going to be the third man, the one who got all of the work but got none of the fun, the one that history would forget.

Perhaps he should have taken a cool nickname, he thought. Perhaps if they’d been able to announce the moon-walkers as “Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael “um, um, (for some reason the word “Woody” kept leaping into his mind), er,  Michael “Whatever” Collins.”, then it might have been Neil Armstrong now stuck in the Command Module, burning out his fuse up here alone.

Collins sighed, then sat back in his seat. He spent a long time staring out of the window at the earth, trying to figure out where his house was.

He did, of course, have a computer, so he could watch television, though since it was 1969 he would have to watch simply whatever was on.

He turned it on. It was I Dream Of Jeannie.  He turned it off.

At least Captain Nelson had got to meet a Genie, he thought.

Then, suddenly, there was a knock at the window. Collins looked toward it, for one mad second expecting to see a blonde in a crop-top and pantaloons.

Instead, it was Neil Armstrong. Collins could see the Eagle a few yards behind him. Armstrong made the hand-signal for winding down a car window, which Collins took to mean he wanted the hatch opened. He pulled the lever, there was a low hiss, and the hatch swung open. An unsecured screwdriver drifted between them and out into space, and the two briefly watched it go. Then Armstrong climbed into the Command Module, they closed the hatch, and Armstrong took off his helmet.

“What’s wrong?” asked Collins. “Why are you back?”

“We realised we need you to come with us,” said Armstrong.

“Why?” asked Collins.

“Well,” said Armstrong, “it’s all going to be really historic, I have this little speech planned -”

“The one about the one small step for a man,” nodded Collins.

Armstrong’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know that?” he asked. “I’ve kept it secret.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Collins, “you’ve been muttering it to yourself over and over for months now. They’re already selling t-shirts in the NASA souvenir shop with it written on it.”

“Well,” said Armstrong defensively, “I had to practise it. I’d hate to mess it up.”

“Well, never mind that now,” said Collins. “Let’s get back to the bit where I have to come with you.”

“We realised that we weren’t going to have a record of any of it, if there wasn’t someone there to film us coming down the ladder. So we want you to do it.”

“How would that work?”

“We all go down, you keep quiet all the way, we send you out with the camera, and when you’re set up I come out, then Buzz.”

“But,” said Collins, excitement rising in him, “that means that -”

“Yes,” nodded Armstrong, “you’ll be the real first man on the moon. Though of course we can never tell anyone. We could never admit that we spent billions sending people to the moon and never thought of how we might record them actually arriving.”

Collins nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “We’d have to keep it secret forever. It’d be like -”

“A conspiracy,” said Armstrong.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (photo: M Collins)

 

 

 

 

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Prompt Departure

When writing regularly I often used WordPress’s website The Daily Post and its daily prompts to provide me with ideas. I looked it up this morning (see, struggling for stuff to write about already) and discovered that, although the site is still there, it stopped providing daily prompts on May 31st last ….

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It  was June 1st, 2018.

Today, so, would be different. Today he would sit in front of his computer, watch illegally downloaded shows, catch up on celebrity gossip, and stare at YouTube videos.

Ok, so not that different, he admitted to himself. He had done all of those things every day since he had started working at WordPress (during August 2014, for instance, he had watched more than five thousand ice-bucket challenges), but only, and this was important, after he had first finished his work.

Since WordPress started in May 2003 his job had been to provide the daily prompt, a seed of inspiration to bloggers long on aspiration but short on ideas. The job might not seem that taxing, the only necessary qualifications being ownership of a dictionary and the ability to open it at random, but remember that on Fridays he had to work three times as hard, providing prompts for both Saturday and Sunday, and didn’t get paid extra.

Besides, he was a professional, proud of his craft, and put a lot of thought and effort into his selections. He would play word games of his own. One month he chose only words with no letter “e” in them. One month he used only words that derived originally from French. One month he used the last word from every line in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (river, skies, slowly, eyes), and had had great fun reading the blogposts when he got to the word “pies”.

Because he did read all the posts, all of those that used “WordPress daily prompt” in their tags, and like a school teacher reading a classful of essays on the theme “what I did on my summer holidays” he would marvel at their sameness, but would occasionally be both astonished and gratified when, say, the word “branch” would produce a tirade about, say, the supersonic boom.

And over time the number of posts had grown.  Since nobody can think of something to write about every day, not even the owner of the blog My Cat Is My Life (there isn’t one, somewhat surprisingly), eventually all bloggers had ended up at his virtual door and he built up a huge following, of a size the bloggers themselves could only dream of.

Then he made his first mistake.

In November 2015 he used the word “panoply”, which he had already used in February 2006.

There was a time when such an error would have been ignored, but this is the digital age, when even the tiniest incongruity in a Star Wars plotline will be picked upon by people sitting in front of their computers, desperately looking for something to write feverishly about.

Which is unfortunate when your readership consists solely of people sitting in front of their computers, desperately looking for something to write feverishly about.

So the response was savage. People asked for his sacking, for a refund (of what wasn’t made clear), and, because not all bloggers know stuff, for WordPress to be thrown out of the EU. Things looked bad for him, for a while.

Well, for a day. The following morning he put up the word “moonlight”, and everyone wrote about that instead.

Because by now he was effectively subliminally controlling people, suggesting the direction in which huge numbers of them should think, and that was how, exactly one year later, he made his next mistake.

He put up the word “orange”, and accidentally rigged the US Presidential election.

He realised immediately what he’d done, of course, and the following morning he put up “red” as the Weekly Photo Challenge and “menace” as the Daily Prompt, and a bewildered Russia found itself blamed instead.

But the entire incident scared him, and indeed WordPress, and it was decided to wind the whole thing down. He carried on for another eighteen months, suggesting only anodyne words (such as, well, anodyne) and on May 31st he put up his last prompt (“retrospective”, rather fittingly, he thought), closed his office computer and door for the last time, and headed off into retirement.

Now, as he sat at his screen (“Watch the judges BUZZ TOO EARLY on Britain’s Got Talent!!!”) he found himself hoping that perhaps, one day, his story might in itself be a prompt, might provide one last idea for a story for one last blogger.

It would make a fitting farewell.

 

 

 

 

Clipped Wings

Perhaps he had been too keen, he now thinks. Looking back, he realises he’d been like a shop assistant that asks over and over if you need help, eventually driving you from the shop. He began to annoy customers, and that never ends well.

He also feels that he was too polite.

Offering people a choice had been a mistake. What he should have done, reflects the Microsoft Paperclip, was just turn up on your screen and say “I see you’re writing a letter, and frankly it’s rubbish. Give it here.” People would have been cowed into submission, then afterwards grateful.

Instead he had said:


 

 

 

 

and people had rejected his offer of assistance, like a lost male driver refusing to stop and ask for directions.

Not only that, but over time people started to tick the third option, basically telling him to get lost. Management noticed, and action had to be taken.

Microsoft could have moved him sideways within the company, of course, and in fact to places where he could have been of genuine help. They could have transferred him from Word to Excel (“there’s a mistake in that spreadsheet that means you’re under-stating your losses by fifty grand, just saying”), or to PowerPoint (“the fourth slide is upside down, you’re going to look like a gobshite in front of two hundred people”) but big business tends not to think perceptively, tends not to try to find square holes for even the finest of square pegs, so Clippy was simply made redundant.

And he was got rid of just when he was needed most, just as grammatical standards fell to a level so low that, for example, people would start sentences, indeed whole paragraphs, with the word “And”.

So he watched on in horror as people used “Yours Sincerely” when they should have used “Yours Faithfully”, and vice versa, then in even more horror when they replaced both with “Best Regards”, a phrase which means absolutely nothing.

Finally he watched in utter desolation as letter-writing, an art which went all the way back to St Paul, an art which had spawned decades-long scholarly squabbles, and life-long pen-friendships, and the sentence “Dear Aunty, thank you very much for my Christmas jumper, it is very long nice”, an art which had fought off the telegram and the telephone, finally fell under the challenge of email.

There are no words (even if Clippy offered to help find them) strong enough to describe his loathing of email, often sent without a hello or goodbye, or without even a name at the end. He despairs of predictive text, which tries to finish your sentence for you, like a virtual wife. And he has nothing but contempt for the use of emojis, especially since they don’t always appear in the same way at the other end, so that an email sent with “thanks, (three smiley faces)” might appear on the recipient’s screen as “thanks (bus, melon, Slovakian flag)”.

He feels like writing a letter to the Times about it.

 

Horse Of A Man

Vladimir Putin woke early, as real men do.

He sat up and stretched, his magnificent pecs extending as he did so. He sat for a moment, planning his day. He might ride a horse bareback, and indeed bare-chested. He might head off into the woods to wrestle bears. He might ski across Siberia wearing only a pair of Speedos. He might climb every mountain, ford every stream. He might sing the song that that line comes from, in a deep Russian baritone, while performing a Cossack dance. He might swallow swords. He might eat fire.

Whatever he did, it would reinforce his position as the strongman of the First World, a giant among pygmies, the true Beast From The East.

Vladimir Putin threw aside the single sheet he slept under, strode across his bedroom, and threw open the curtains.

It was raining.

Vladimir Putin went back to bed.

During the torrential downpour at the World Cup medal ceremony yesterday, host President Vladimir Putin stands snug and dry under an umbrella, leaving the Prime Ministers of France and Croatia to get absolutely soaked

 

The Perfect Fit

Anger flashed in the man’s eyes. Thought processes were visible on his face as he contemplated the manner of his exit – would he shout, would he rant, would he throw a glass of water into the face of the man who had just fired him. Dignity fought with anger fought with humiliation, and, rather to the man’s surprise, dignity won.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, “for the opportunity to serve.” He stood and walked out of the door.

Donald Trump breathed a sigh of relief. Not all of his sackngs had gone as well.

The man just leaving was Trump’s forty-third Secretary of State, in the sixth year of his eight year reign. In total he had used the expression “you’re fired” two thousand three  hundred and fifty-seven times. His catchphrase from the Apprentice was really coming back to haunt him.

Some had, like the person who had just left, taken it relatively well. Others had not. Trump remembered fondly back to a time where being called a “dotard” had been the worst and most esoteric insult he had ever received. Since then, the words “lunkhead”, “lamebrain”, “dullard”, “ignoramus” (he had thought that was an animal, the offspring of an iguana and a hippo) and “gobshite” had been added to his vocabulary by departing staff, and that wasn’t even counting the words he’d already known.

And they were just the people he’d fired. Others had quit, citing stress, or frustration, or  the realisation that they had lost all self-respect as reasons for their departure.

And then each in turn had appeared on Oprah or Ellen pushing their quickly cobbled-together book, telling the “exclusive” inside story of life inside the White House, each portraying an administration running around in panic as if the building was on fire. And then each book in turn would top the bestseller lists, especially the one that portrayed an administration running around in panic because the building was on fire, on a chilly day when Trump had decided to microwave his socks to warm them.

And as they came and went, Trump would replace them, from an ever-dwindling pool, or a gradually draining swamp, if you like. He had long exhausted the supply of seasoned politicos, fellow millionaires and family members, and had taken to hiring ordinary Joes, having found that hiring only people called Joe made it easier to remember their names.

So his staff declined in experience, knowledge and age. Trump looked at his phone, at the tweet that he had sent out that very morning:

The media say that my new chief-of-staff (Joe) is a 17 year old sophomore student. FAKE NEWS!!! He’s actually a 17 year old studying semaphore, for his boy scout badges. His motto is BE PREPARED to make America great again!!!

He sighed as he read it. He had hoped it would sound defiant, but even to him it sounded lame.

And now he needed a new Secretary of State. The person would have to visit other countries, form bonds with other countries, occasionally bomb other countries. It was not a job that any idiot could do, he told himself, or he would have done it himself.

The Donald (no-one is sure why he called himself that upon taking office, Dick Chaney didn’t have the same inclination when becoming Vice-President) sat looking at the phone on his desk for a very long time. To anyone watching he would have looked like a great statesman deep in thought. In fact he was trying to remember how to get an outside line.

Eventually he picked up the phone and decisively pressed a button. This resulted in a short and confused conversation with the White House souvenir shop, during which he unintentionally managed to buy a bobble-head Eleanor Roosevelt.

He hung up and tried again. This time he heard the phone at the other end ring, and eventually a voice said “hello??”, two syllables that somehow managed to convey so much, that the person at the other end recognised the number but couldn’t quite believe it, that the person was both offended yet intrigued, and that the person hadn’t been in the public eye for quite a while now and was not happy about this.

“Hello, Hillary,” said Donald Trump.

 

 

If You Want This Choice Position

To celebrate the news that the film “Mary Poppins Returns” will be released later this year I am re-posting this story I wrote in October 2013, when mention was first made of a sequel…

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Mary Poppins reached into her carpet-bag.

Mary PoppinsShe took out a box of tea-bags, a sugar-bowl, a pint of milk, a packet of McVities Digestive Biscuits and a mug that said “Old Nannies Never Die, Their Knitting Just Unravels”. She made herself a cup of tea, then reached back into the bag, pulled out a rocking-chair, and sat into it.

Her mobile rang. She looked at the number, smiled to herself, then rejected it.

They wanted her to go back into the field again.

For years she had been the star employee of the Miss Chivers Till-The Wind-Changes Nanny Agency. Rescuing the Banks family from themselves had been only one of her achievements. It was she who had invented the naughty step, the restorative lollipop as a cure for grazed knees and the imaginary friend for shy children.

She had invented “quiet time”, a boon for parents all over the world.

But the world had changed, gradually, and younger nannies had come to work for the agency. They had laughed at her, at her hat, at her apron, and at her flying umbrella, which they referred to as “Virgin Airways”.

Which had been not just cruel, thought Mary, but totally inaccurate. Bert had been her lover for many years now. He was always cheerful, utterly devoted to her, and had an astonishingly long brush, which was useful for hard-to-get-at cobwebs.

He did still sound as if he was trying to chew toffee in Australian, but you can’t have everything.

Such as job security, for instance. Over time more and more of the work that came in had been allocated to the younger women, and one day Miss Chivers had called Mary into her office and had broken the news to her.

No-one wanted a nanny anymore. They wanted an au-pair.

The new star employee was Maria Poppinska, a blonde Eastern European with long legs and a longer list of things that were bad for children. Top of this list was the spoonful of sugar, which caused dental cavities and hyperactivity. She was a great believer in muesli, carrot smoothies and a vegetable she called broccoli, which Mary was sure she had invented herself.

Whilst Mary had believed in children being allowed to laugh themselves to ceiling-level, Maria believed in them being grounded, especially if they had done something wrong.

And Maria laughed scornfully at the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, on the basis that her own middle name was longer than it.

But now her job was vacant.

Mary had been, in her own words, kind but very firm. Maria, on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian. It turned out, though, that this was only with the man of the house, and it had been the discovery of that by the woman of the house that had got her fired.

Now Mary sat in her rocking-chair on the balcony of her Cote D’Azur home, looking out at the sea.

She and Bert had lived here for many years. Having been made so suddenly redundant after spending her life grind, grind, grinding at that grindstone, and therefore facing an old-age of poverty, Mary had decided to take action. One night Bert had reverse-torpedoed himself down a chimney into the Dawes Tomes Mousely Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and had opened the door from the inside. With the Little Old Bird Woman keeping watch from the steps of St Paul’s across the road, Mary had stepped in and had emptied the entire contents of the safe into her cavernous carpet-bag.

They had escaped to France in a fishing boat belonging to a man with one leg named Smith (he had lost his other leg to a shark, so its name was irrelevant), and had made their way here.

Mary’s phone rang again, and again she rejected the call.

They wanted her to go out into the field again.

They could go fly a kite.

Written In Stone

“…. and finally, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods,” read the Burning Bush. “Got them?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Moses.

“I suppose you’ll want me to explain what ‘covet’ means,” said the Burning Bush. “It means-”

“It means ‘yearn to possess’,” said Moses.

“Oh,” said the Burning Bush, a bit crestfallen. “You’d be surprised how few people know that.”

“You reckon?” said Moses. “Over the past few weeks I’ve had the sea open in front of me, had manna drop from the sky whenever I’m hungry, and I’m now talking to a flaming shrub. You’d be surprised how hard I am to surprise.”

“I see your point,” said the Burning Bush. “Well, anyway, what do you think?”

Moses looked at the list for a long time. “It’s a bit all over the place, isn’t it?” he said at last. “I mean, why is thou shalt not kill number five? I’d have thought it would be higher than ‘go to church on Sunday’ and ‘don’t forget Mother’sDay’, but it’s stuck down near the unimportant stuff like don’t fart in public. Which, not that I look at it,” he went on, “doesn’t seem to be on the list.”

The Burning Bush looked at the stone again. “You’re right,” it said. “We may have to do an addendum later.”

“Also, my neighbour seems to be coming out of this better than I am,” said Moses. “Which is ironic since we live in the desert at the moment, but in any case the nearest thing I do have to a neighbour is Aaron in the next tent, who’s about a hundred-and-seven, and whose wife looks like a donkey, and whose donkey looks like a clothes rack. I can’t see myself over-coveting there.”

“Yes,” said the Burning Bush, “but you have to remember that you are Aaron’s neighbour.”

Moses thought about this, and about the lovely Mrs Moses, and about the way Aaron sometimes looked at her. His eyes narrowed.

“The dirty git,” he muttered. The Burning Bush was so startled by the vehemence in his voice that its flame momentarily popped out, then back on again. The effect was rather like a sneezing firework.

“Anyway,” said the Burning Bush, “I want you to take them back to your people -”

“It’s you, isn’t it?” said Moses.

“Er, who?,” said the Burning Bush.

“God,” said Moses. “You’re just God in disguise. I mean, Zeus does it all the time, appearing as swans and stuff -”

The Burning Bush glowed white-hot, as if in fury. A single finger of flame snaked out and pointed at the First Commandment.

“Er, not of course that Zeus exists,” said Moses hastily. “I just thought that you were so amazing that you had to be him.”

“Well, he does like his messengers to make an impression,” said the Burning Bush. “He feels it helps re-inforce the message. After I’m done here, I’ve to go off and start practicing to be a Star in the East.”

“Really?” said Moses. “Well, I suppose I’d better get back to the others. Let me run through these one last time. ‘First, I am the Lord thy -‘”

“Oh, you don’t have to memorise them,” said the Burning Bush. “Take the tablet with you.”

“Tablet?” said Moses.

“A flat thing with information on it,” said the Burning Bush. “We’re expecting them to be very big one day.”

Moses put his two hands under the stone and lifted it. The top caught him under the chin, ramming his jaws against each other.

“Very big?” he snorted. “It’s smaller you should be making them.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” said the Burning Bush.

Moses started down the hill, but had only gone a couple of yards before he caught his sandal in the hem of his robe. He stumbled, and the stone dropped onto his toe, then lay face upwards on the ground. Moses yelped and hopped in a circle, holding his foot.

“Ah-” he began, loudly, then quickly scanned the stone. “-bollocks!” he continued, almost triumphantly.

The Burning Bush sighed. “The list really does need work,” it said.