Sounds of Soldiers


NaNoWriMo first draft – Sally

I still have plenty of time to get to Levenshulme within the window Sally gave me. The A6 has slightly more powered traffic on it than the roads around the centre. I recognise the smell of burnt ethanol mingled with the saliva generating aroma of biodiesel. Motor vehicles are still outnumbered by bikes though.

The address Sally gave me is on a street that runs parallel to the railway line. It’s a dead end with a park, converted to allotments, at the end. This street runs north to south, so it’s not so good for catching sunlight on the roofs. A lot of them, however have basic green roofs, boxed off and with sedum grass sprouting from them. I just hope the waterproof membranes are good enough.

The house has frames in the front garden, for peas I guess but bare now. There are still some onions and leeks in the beds around the frames though. It seems that every piece of earth that can be reached has been planted. I don’t know how many people are completely self sufficient, but a fair few must be getting close to it. It’s like the whole dig for victory thing from the second world war, only it’s going to go on for longer this time. We are, let’s face it, entering the post pollution society. Considering how far they’ve got in Manchester in such a short time I’m optimistic about what can be achieved elsewhere. This was the world’s first industrial city, responsible in a way for the advances that have led to so much pollution, perhaps it can make up for that by becoming one of the first truly eco cities.

Sally’s short and tiny, with a pretty face and short black hair. She’s wearing some sort of one piece that’s splattered with paint. There’s a moment of recognition, for both of us. She nods and smiles, a little coy, “The wanderer returns. Come in.” There’s a short corridor with the stairs at the end, but we take an immediate right into the front room.

I’m not the greatest with names, and I still haven’t placed Sally though I’m sure we’ve met. And spent long enough together for me to remember the face at least.

“You don’t remember me do you?”

“Well, erm, no. I recognise you but I can’t remember why.”

“I’m Keith’s sister. You spent a week helping me find a flat once.”

“Oh, right.”

“You don’t remember? You did that sort of thing often?”

“Often enough, I guess.”

“Keith’s dead.”

I have a horrible feeling I’ve got of to a bad start somehow, her pronouncement is so cold. “Last year.” she continues, “They said that he might still be alive, if they could have had the right drugs. But the world situation put a stop to that.” She’s started fretting, little movements like she’s pacing on the spot. She clasps her hands together, drops them to her side, puts them behind her back. “Sorry. I’ve been trying to think how I’d tell you about it ever since I got your email saying you were back in town. I think I fucked it up didn’t I?”

She tries the smile again, a little more nervous this time. I’m at a loss for words, which is bad. What she needs right now is reassurance of some form, but we stand across from each other, not quite ready to make a move. “Tea?” she asks.

“You have tea?”

“Nettle tea. I quite like it.”

“Yes please.”

She leaves the room and I take a seat. I have a feeling I made more of an impression on her than she did on me and wants to be remembered better than my sad old synapses are able. Thinking about it I do remember Keith having a sister, but I swear she was blonde. There are photos on the mantelpiece, maybe they’ll give me some information. One larger picture is a family portrait, Keith, a mousey Sally and their parents. Keith is sitting with the others around him. He does not look very well, what I first thought was a crew cut could be something worse. Tucked into the picture frame are a couple of other photos. One shows Sally in a baggy T-shirt on a beach, looking off to her left, the sea reflected in her sunglasses. In the other she’s with her brother, who looks much healthier, out on the town in a bar I think I recognise. The Sally in this picture is the blonde one I remember.

“Tea.” she announces as she comes through the door. “It will need a while to brew.”

We sit across from each other, trying not to watch the tea brew. “So. You said you had something for me?” I manage after a while.

“Keith kept some of your stuff. And your other friends put him in charge of looking after the stuff you posted back.”

I’d set up a post box, long distance, and passed the details on, and posted backups of my pictures and writing to it. I hadn’t even thought about checking what had made it, I’d just assumed it had been a failure.

“How much stuff?”

“There’s a shoe box of disks, just about. They’re in the basement somewhere, we can go and have a look.” She’s blushing, and I’m getting that feeling again. Looking for something to do, she pours the nettle tea. It’s quite nice. I’ve drunk worse, and stranger, in the last few years. “I haven’t checked the post box since Keith passed. There might be some more stuff in it. And I’ve hardly seen any of his… your friends since the funeral. Everyone’s so busy now, wrapped up in getting along. There’s my neighbours, I guess, but we just don’t seem to have the community everyone else talks about.”

“It can be hard getting to know people.”

“You never seemed to have that problem. Not from what I saw and read.”

“I’ve always had trouble talking to people, they don’t seem to have any trouble talking to me. I’ve never really understood how that works.” I pour myself some more tea. “Do you live here alone?”

“Yes. I have a spare room.”

“You’d rent it out?” This has headed off in an odd direction, but I was going to start looking for somewhere more permanent than the hotel anyway.

“I might.”

By the time we’ve finished the tea we’ve agreed terms and I’ll move in tomorrow. It’s not as if I have much to bring. “Shall we go and see if we can find your stuff?” she suggests.

We head down into the basement. I have to duck under beams that she’s too short to be bothered by. The basement has about the same footprint as the first floor, which makes it larger than I’d expected.. There are a lot of boxes along one wall and a work desk along what equates to the front wall. Canvasses are stacked on the work desk and leaning against the boxes- lots of paintings, oils or acrylics I think, of local buildings grand and small. “You did these?”

“I just started again. I think we’ve reached the point where people will pay for art again. I’ve done some shop signs as well.”

“Nice. I like the town hall.”

“Thanks.” She starts lifting boxes down. I notice that none of them are higher than she can reach. She’s stacked them herself, maybe she really hasn’t had that many visitors recently. “I think it’s in…. That box there.”

Sally hands me a shoe box. I lift the lid and it is filled with dvds, cds and thumb drives. I think they all got through, which is a hugely greater success rate than I’d expected. The ones I thought were most important, or most sellable, are backed up online or in other disks in various European banks, but this collection will add depth to them.

“Let’s put that in your room.” Sally suggests after I’ve stared at the inside of the box for a couple of minutes. “Then you can go and collect all your stuff.”

My room’s on the first floor, with the bathroom between it and Sally’s. It has a double bed, cupboards and not a lot of floor space. There’s a second floor, with a tiny studio making the most of the skylights. I can live here quite easily. Again, I’ve slept in worse over the last few years.


NaNoWriMo first draft – Waste not

There are schemes all over town to promote self sufficiency. Manchester’s ecological sphere of influence is shrinking inwards. It proudly proclaims itself to be approaching carbon neutrality and trumpets the aim of becoming a net exporter of energy.

In the city centre the tallest buildings have all been eco-tarted in some way. Several years ago the Cooperative Insurance Services tower was partially clad in solar cells. The company also mounted wind turbines atop an office block, but it never seemed to get enough airflow and they were idle more often than not. They’ve obviously mapped the wind patterns around town since then because there are now several buildings with windmill blades spinning madly on their roofs. They generate a low hum that’s strangely relaxing. They did try to put a turbine on top of the Beetham Tower, the city’s tallest building, but they built it too big and the skyscraper wasn’t made for the strain. So they didn’t even mount the windmill on the tower and erected it in Heaton Park instead.

Solar is popular on lots of the buildings. Production of photovoltaics was interrupted for several years as it became hard to transport the raw materials around the world, but solar thermal has flourished. It’s not so hard to produce evacuated glass tubes, so a lot of buildings have arrays of them fitted on any south facing surface. Mostly they heat enough water during the day for evening showers or to keep the house warm during the night, but I hear that more than one workshop inventor is working on a Stirling energy to generate electricity using the heat.

Within a few streets, in any direction, of my hotel there are terraced streets running East to West. That acreage of south facing roofing has been put to good use. As well as providing a community heat source the system that’s been set up provides the heat to distill and clean the water supply.

Trying to scale back on infrastructure to better cope with circumstances it was decided that the cleaning of tap water wasn’t a priority. It was a waste of energy to have every drop pure enough to drink when most of it was used for other purposes. This meant boiling all your drinking water or finding other ways to purify it. Most houses now have a brown water tank- from showers, washing up etc. to be used in the toilet or on the garden- and a clear water one. The clear water tank is usually fed by evaporation distillation of tap water using waste heat from the house and solar heating.

I cycle around randomly up and down streets, as much to get used to the fixed wheel as to explore. As long as the back wheel is turning the pedals are turning. If my legs stop going around they’ll either lock the back wheel or get kicked off. If I lean forward it takes some of the weight off the rear wheel, making locking it up easier. Then I can lean back and put more force into the braking. It’s an interesting experience. I can see why no-one wanted to take this strange bike on.

At the end of one of the streets there is a two storey red brick building. An old factory, probably. I do a circuit and find the front door. It’s double wide and has huge stalks of corn painted on it. Above the doors a sign in exuberant graffiti writing pronounces ‘Ethanol!’. Set inside the bigger doors is a smaller one for individual entry. It’s cracked open and I can see movement through it. Despite years of experience and that old saying about the cat I can’t fight my curiosity and pop my head through the door.

It smells a bit like a brewery, a bit like the floor of a forest. There are big vats, with lots of plumbing, that go up through the space that would have been the first floor . The roof isn’t a roof. It seems to be a framework with tables on it.

“Here for a few gallons?” a woman in overalls asks me. “We won’t have a new batch for a few days.”

“This is a brewery?”

“And distillery. But don’t go drinking any of our shit. You’ll go blind.”

Now it all makes sense. They make ethanol biofuel. The big vats brew “beer” from plant waste- I can see a pile of straw and paper in one corner. I don’t see any sort of pressure cooker, so I guess they’re breaking it down with enzymes. “Are those things on the roof solar stills?”

“Yes they are.”

The solar stills distill the brew, strengthening it. No doubt, as there are several of them, they are set up in series, each one strengthening the product of the previous one. At the end of the process they should have alcofuel concentrated enough to run a car on.

“Almost a shame I don’t have a car to run on it.”

“Oh, you should try next door. They convert cars to run on this stuff.”

“Maybe when I’m rich enough. Sorry for popping in like that, I’m just nosey.”

“No problem.”

Next door, as promised, there’s a workshop where they convert cars to run on ethanol. I never did learn what it takes to do that. There are five cars, all small ones, being worked on and a couple of motors mounted on frames and connected up to generators or pumps.

I carry on my learning reconnaisance, round and round the streets, until it starts to rain. Then I sprint back to the hotel as fast as I can. On the way I pass communal composters and a pick up from the ethanol shop collecting paper and other cellulose waste. There’s a workshop making new computers from old. Lots of stuff is being traded second hand and refurbished. Capitalism is alive and well, just in a very different way to how it used to be.


NaNoWriMo first draft – Vanderbrook

Notes More background on the narrator’s exploits before coming back to Manchester.

The Expat

During every election, everywhere, there are always people who say they will leave the country if their choice loses. They’re usually lying.

After the last US election there were some who followed through on the threat.

I’m in the house of James Vanderbrook in the south of France. It’s practically a fortress perched atop a cliff with views up and down the valley. Since the road up the hill washed away there’s only one way up there. Visitors park their cars in a natural garage under an overhang gouged by a river that has since swung across to the opposite side of the valley. Then they have to walk up a steep but well maintained path, stopping at every switch back to pretend to admire the view but really to catch their breath.

What you can see of the house is rustic French. Once upon a time, before the road up washed away, this was a farm house. There’s a huge upland meadow behind it, enclosed on the other three sides by ridgelines and the mountain they come down from. Goats graze the meadow. They look at us in that superior way they have as we settle down for coffee.

“I’m American. I always thought I was.” declares Vanderbrook, “But not this America.”

“They’re starting to call it the Divided States.” I offer.

“How can they not. They used all this rhetoric about ‘Real America’ and all their opposites not having American values, all through the campaign. And that was bad enough. But after they stole the election it became obvious that they actually had policies based upon it.”

He tops up my coffee. It’s the best I’ve had in a while. The French don’t like to admit it, but this strange pseudo war that’s being waged across Europe has seriously impacted the quality of the beans they’re using. Vanderbrook obviously has a stash of the highest quality somewhere on the compound.

“It’s obvious they stole the election, by the way. I know that anyone who went on a news programme and tried to explain was treated as a nut. So people stopped leaving themselves open to the abuse. But it was stolen.”

“You’re preaching to the converted. I spent most of that Wednesday drunk. And I’ve only ever spent a fortnight in the US ever.”

“You and the rest of the world. I didn’t even give them until the changeover. I started work on leaving the country before the end of November and I was out by the handover.”

“To here?”

“Not straight away. I lived out of a suitcase for a while. I employed a hundred people. They, and I, were paying taxes. I could have left the country and carried on paying them, but if I left the country but carried on paying them then I was still funding the regime. So I worked on getting as many of them as possible out of the country and working for me abroad. Sixty three of them came with me. There are some in Ireland, some here in France, a lot in India and a few in other places. Some of them are travelling. Nowadays you can have your offices almost anywhere. It’s not quite as productive and sometimes I miss the chatter, but it works fairly well.”

“So you don’t pay any taxes in the States?”

“Oh I’m sure I do, but I’ve gone out of my way to cut the amount of funding I give to their madness.”

I don’t know how well Vanderbrook lived in the States, but his life here is idyllic. He has a gorgeous wife and live in help. Crystal clear water is pumped up from the river using power from the windmill and solar panels and his rural hideaway is in contact with the rest of the world thanks to a line of sight radio connection to the telecoms centre at the bottom of the valley.

“What brings you to this rather beautiful piece of nowhere?” Vanderbrook enquires.

“I heard about the mad American on the hill and I just had to come and see what they were on about.”

“I hope I don’t disappoint.”

“Not so far. Are there many other ex pats that you know of around here?”

“Around here no. But I work with folks who’ve moved to India, Germany, Australia…. Enough of us have left that it’s taken a hunk out of the United States’ tax take. It’s…. I don’t know. I’m not proud of contributing to the bankrupting of my home country, but I’d be even less proud of what they’d do with my money if they got their hands on it.”

They killed him, of course.

It would have been hard to believe that elements of the largest and best equipped military in the world would go feral. But that’s what they did after the attempt to break out of Germany. They had to discard all of their high tech equipment- there are still abandoned tanks and humvees to be found all around Europe- but they kept enough personal weapons to out shoot any of the local police they most often tussled with.

The gang that came down Vanderbrook’s valley- by that point they’d degenerated from squads or whatever to simple yobs- had no doubt heard about his castle on the hill and decided to punish the traitor. There’s no comfort to be derived from it, but the castle was to be the location of this bunch’s last stand. But there were others.

Maybe if I’d never met Vanderbrook I wouldn’t have acted how I did in Apt.


The Battle of Paris

Notes Very, very rough outline here of what will eventually emerge.

I’ve never thought I was particularly brave, and I like to think I’m not foolish. But one of those two traits must have been in play when I didn’t get on the last train back to Britain.

I had just taken one of the photos of the year, and I’m sure that had some effect. The attention that sort of thing gets feels good and can leave you wanting more. So, whilst the other Brits were heading North, I went South.

Two days earlier I had posted the following-

The Ghost of the Eiffel

Hitler ordered that Paris should be levelled when his armies retreated from it, but General von Choltitz refused. So, until yesterday, most of its great cultural landmarks remained unharmed.

Until yesterday.

Four days ago the area around the Gare du Nord were on fire. Someone had been killing young men in the predominantly muslim areas around there, and they had finally been found out. Foreign agents- common thought has it they were American, and yesterday’s events give it credence- were operating in France’s capital assassinating suspected terrorists.

Gangs of young, angry Parisians took to the streets, torching and looting any American symbols they came across. I don’t think there’s a McDonalds left standing in the city. I didn’t go out of my hotel after dark, when the rioting was worst, but I wandered out in the morning. I have uploaded the pictures.

It was during the second day of rioting that the culprits were flushed out. They were armed, and they fought back when they realised they faced a lynch mob.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, or checking the blog regularly you’ll probably have read some of my frightened messages after I found myself driven before the mob as they dragged the assassins to the spot they were to be executed.

In the crowd at an execution isn’t somewhere I want to be again. As the eight men were lined up to be shot in the back of the head with their own guns I managed to work my way to the edge of the crowd and down an alley. I wasn’t the only one. Scared, angry and disoriented people were drifting out of the crowd, trying to get back to sanity. We didn’t run until we heard the crack of the assault rifles. The gendarmes didn’t stop us as we streamed past them. They were closing in on the heart of the crowd.

I took pictures that day as well. I haven’t uploaded any of those, none of them were that good.

Travel out of the city was restricted. The hotel staff had managed to hoard some food and had left bread, pate and wine in my room with a note in stilted English suggesting I didn’t leave the building until it had been declared safe to do so. I settled into my room to watch CNN and see what they were telling the rest of the world about the riots. There was no mention of the rumours that the assassins were believed to be American.

I was quite safely to the south of the river. The view from my room presented a vista of the north of the city, framing the Eiffel tower. I set my camera up on its tripod, having to wedge it between the window and the bed, and set it off taking pictures on time lapse at one every thirty seconds. I worked out that the memory card would fill with a day’s worth of pictures and I could do a time lapse movie of a day of rioting.

I was about to nod off when the room lit up with a yellow flash. The roar of the explosion and the shockwave hit a long half a second later. The windows were open, but they rattled against the walls. One of the curtains was ripped from its rail and whipped across the room.

When I picked myself up off the floor the room dust was filtering in through the window. I crawled over to the window. The tripod was still standing where I had wedged it, the camera still taking pictures of the devastation.

From the near bank of the Seine, where the Eiffel Tower had been, a mushroom cloud rose. All the buildings halfway from the epicentre to my hotel were on fire. The camera took another picture.
I don’t think the bomb was a nuke. I don’t think it was powerful enough. But it was huge. Sirens were going off everywhere. There was commotion in the corridor outside my room. But, it took me a while to realise, the television was still on. We still had power.

That was yesterday. I’ve been told not to leave the hotel, but the staff have been around with more food and water and the electricity stays on. I even found an open wireless network this afternoon, which is why I can send this out. I’ve been through the photos on the memory card and I think I’ve found one taken right at the moment the bomb went off. I fact, I think the bomb went off when the picture was already half exposed. The ghost of the Eiffel Tower is in the centre of the image, directly under the bright white burst of the explosion. CNN says the explosion was a terrorist device set off under the Eiffel, but this picture says otherwise.

I will upload as many pictures as bandwidth allows, and sit here waiting for a way out of the city.

The bomb, it turned out, was a MOAB, a Mother of all Bombs or, to give it its proper name, a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb. The full story has yet to be revealed of how it came to be dropped on Paris. The insanity in Germay kicked off at the same time, so it had to be part of the whole madness in the States. Maybe they’ll be able to dig something out of the ashes of Washington that’ll explain how the President was allowed to go so far and why so many went along with the war for so long.

Two days later they arranged an evacuation of Paris fearing further bombing since war had been declared. Britain was claiming neutrality, offering safe haven for any US servicemen who wanted help getting home. There were trains back to the UK, but the borders were going to be closed soon. I’d been offered ridiculously large amounts for my Paris explosion pictures. I could head back and live off my one momentary brush with history, safe and sound.

But there was news of an American army group fighting its way out of Germany and a fleet patrolling the Mediterannean. There were going to be lots of chances for further brushes with history. I tagged my suitcase and sent it home and walked out of the station with a backpack filled with one change of clothes, a laptop and a camera.


NaNoWriMo first draft – Easter Eggs

The whole terrace of houses had been replaced with Easter eggs. That’s what it looked like. Or maybe pine cones. That’s probably what they’re meant to evoke- pine cones standing on their fat bases in the sun- but I can’t help but see easter eggs. The kind that were filled with toffee, they were always a little too elongated to be properly ovoid. It doesn’t help that they’re brown. I’m sure that’s part of the pine cone motif as well, but it just reminds me of chocolate.

I’m still a few streets from where I’m heading, the address sent to me by Sally from Keith’s email address. But I have to know how they came to be here. They’re set further back from the street than the houses they’ve replaced, I reckon, and each has a small garden out front. In many cases the garden extends around the egg house, as they’re detached from each other, to further greenery at the rear. The gardens are mostly given over to practical plants- herbs and root vegetables, one garden is filled with the familiar large leaves of potatoes.

I must be looking lost, or confused, because the guy working in the garden I pass half way down the street steps up to his gate, “Are you looking for someone?”

“No, I…. Well, not on this street. I was just surprised by these buildings.”

I guess he’s in his fifties, greying but still lean. When he stands up straight he’s a little shorter than me. He gives me that ‘You’re not from around here.’ look. I’m getting used to it, but I’m worried that there’s sometimes hostility behind it. I can understand it, there’s not been a lot of movement within and between countries unil the last few months. And, of course, so much of the troubles of the last few years started with strangers coming to town. But this guy is curious, maybe a little defensive, nothing to get too nervous about.

“Where have you come in from?” That he would understand without me mentioning it is a little unexpected. He smiles, “You have the look.”

“The look? I just got back from France a few days ago.”

“Where in France?”

“Paris when it kicked off, Apt most recently.”

“That’s where the last of them were rounded up, wasn’t it?” he steps back and opens the gate, inviting me in. ‘Rounded up’ is far too tame to describe the events down in the south of France, but I haven’t found the right words for it yet either, and I was there.

“Yeah.”

“You chase trouble?”

“I guess I do. Did. I’ve come home now.”

There is a large bush of Rosemary inside the gate. I rub the leaves and savour the smell. There’s a patch of squash taking up the rest of the front garden. “Are you self sufficient, then?”

“Off this small a patch? Not likely. But I have an allotment on the old park. It’s still not enough, but I do well off it. But you were really interestedc in the house.”

“Yes.” There’s a little, cartoony, porch. He opens the door and beckons me inside. The room is circular, as I’d expect, with a spiral staircase in the middle. It’s split, with a low work surface, a breakfast bar even, into a living room and kitchen. There is ample light from several portholes high up on the wall. “It’s a little poky, but not much more than the old place. And I don’t have much crap left to fill it up with any more either.”

“How did a whole street get replaced with these things?”

“It was burnt down, in the riots. These pods were a quick and cheap way to replace them. They bulldozed the rubble into the house’s own basements, concreted them over and dropped these in their place. They’re manufactured locally too, lots of recycled materials. I think it was a bit of a publicity stunt, the factory that produces them has never been so busy.”

“There’s two bedrooms upstairs and a toilet through that door there. The walls are about this thick” he does the cliche fisherman thing with his hands, “so it’s warm in winter and cool in summer without needing any heating or air conditioning. I miss my old house, and all the stuff I had in it, but this place is a good home. Would you like some tea?”

“Well, I….”

I’m beginning to think that I may have happened upon a lonely man looking for any sort of company he can find when there’s a knock at the door. “It’s open!” he shouts.

A black boy in his early teens or late tweens comes in. He’s wearing a hoodie and jeans and carrying a box under his arm. “Mum said to give you this mister Robinson.”

I admit, I take a step back when Robinson pulls the from the box. I’ve seen a few guns in the last five years, and their arrival rarely bodes well. This one is practically a toy, a skinny little child’s drawing of a gun with a skinny barrel mounted on a small wooden frame and stock. It’s still too bulky to be an air rifle, perhaps a .22. I make a guess on how quickly I can get out of the door and over the gate.

Robinson lays the gun on the counter and lays a box of shells and a telescopic sight beside it. “Thanks Sammy.” The boy notices me, or acknowledges me, for the first time. He cocks his head to one side, curious at my presence. “Oh, Sammy, I was just telling mister?”

“Jones.”

“I was just telling mister Jones about my house. He’s just got back from France. I’m sure he has a few interesting tales to tell. One day.”

“One day.” Who am I kidding, I’ve got the book deal already. That one day had best be soon to justify the advance.

“I’m going hunting tomorrow.” Robinson answers my unvoiced question about the gun. “Sammy’s mother is a gunsmith, self taught, she looks after my gun and packs the bullets for me.”

I’m beginning to relax again, the explanation seems plausible enough. The gun may even have been legal, back in the days when that mattered. “What do you hunt?”

“Vermin mainly. It’s pest control and a source of meat. Two birds with one stone.”

“Birds?”

“Well, squirrels mostly. There are still lots of greys in the city. American invaders, it’s quite apt. How are you with a gun?”

“Far more experienced than I’d like. And quite a good shot, to be honest.”

“Join me tomorrow, about noon.”

“Okay. I never did like those little grey bastards.”

“I should be going.” Sammy announces, “Shoot lots of them mister Robinson.”

“Okay Sammy. Tell your mother thanks. I have a new batch of wine if she wants to pop over for a drink later.” They both blush, because they both know what that really means.

After the boy leaves Robinson puts the ordnance back in the box. “He’s a good kid. His father left when he was just six. And his mother and I have been…..” he puts the box on a shelf above the sink. “I wish he’d call me George. I offered you tea.”

“Yes.”

When the kettle is on he comes back around the breakfast bar “Is your name really Jones?”

“Robert Jones.”

“There was a Jones who kept, what’s the word? Blogging, from France. He got quite a following. When the network was up long enough to read it.”

“Yes. I spent a lot of time with him.”

“And then one day he just walks down my street. Who would have thought I’d have a brush with fame today.”

“I’m not that famous.”

“You’ll do.”

“Do you often strike up conversations with strangers and then invite them to use you gun?”

“Not often. But then again, strangers don’t often walk down my street.”


NaNoWriMo first draft- The Battle of Longsight Market

Note A very rough chapter, this one. It’s my attempt to work out what happened to Paris on the page. To hit 50,000 I should be averaging 1,666 words a day. So far I’m nearer to 1,200. I’ll see if I can raise that, and carry on until I run out of ideas. What I’m producing is far less a novel than very detailed notes for a novel I may one day write.

There used to be shops here, and a church. And the market of course. Now there are trees, saplings really, where the shops used to be and a memorial in the middle of the market place. It’s built from material salvaged from the wrecked buildings, the names of the dead listed on a brass plaque that’s still shiny.

Well, all but three of the dead. The sheet that I picked up in the revolutionary bookshop names the “original martyrs” of the battle, the first to die. I’ve read similar claims on equally badly laid out sheets of paper about other memorials.

“That’s white boy shit, that is.” the asian teenager who’s walked over to see what I’m doing opines, “You don’t believe none of that shit do you?”

“I’ve seen this said about other people.”

That wasn’t quite the right answer. He’s eyeing me suspiciously now. “You one of those memorial freaks? Or you here to recruit?”

“I’m here to find out what happened. I’ve been away a while. But I have seen a few of these memorials in other cities.”

“Well, maybe you don’t look like one of them white jihadi wannabes. Tell you, only the white boys really interested any more We drove the rest of them out. The ones the Yanks didn’t kill.”

“These three were the real deal?”

“Yeah. My bro knew him,” he taps the top name on the list, “says he was a right tosser even before he got fundamentalist. Most of us just want to get on with our lives, make some money, get laid. Our parents don’t like it much, grandparents are worse. But we’re integrating, know what I mean? And people like this, they get some stupid idea about God and want to hold us all back Blow people up and shit and get Police all over us and the white folk calling us all paki and raghead and terrorist, when we’ve done nothing to deserve it”

It’s a weird thing about the memorials, I always get someone coming up to me and telling me the Truth about the local radicals who were assassinated. If the wind were blowing another way I might have got one who told me the three really were martyrs, that the local true believers are just marking time before striking again at the infidels they live amongst. Probably it’s because I’m white, but I like to think it’s because the crazies are in the minority, but I’ve talked to more people like the guy I’m listening to now than the other type. Like him, I want to believe that no idiot’s going to strap a bomb to himself and go off in a crowded place. No-one in their right mind wants any of the remaining western governments thinking “Maybe the Americans had a point.” I’m intrigued, and a little worried, by this talk of white guys coming round and talking about sacrifice and jihad. It’s so hard to tell agents provocateurs from ordinary idiots. If I meet and identify anyone who falls into the latter group I have some photos on my laptops of just what jihad does to a child’s body.

I could be in line for a long lecture from my new friend, that I’d rather not listen to. “This used to be a market. I bought fish from a stall here.”

“It’s all moved now. All the shops are in the old supermarkets over there.” I stare in the direction he’s pointing and nod understanding. In reality I already know this, my bike is locked up outside one of the market halls after all.

“Thanks.”

The Battle of Longsight Market was the Battle of Paris on a smaller scale. A three way fight where two of the sides had firearms and one had whatever it could get its hands on. It started several months before the first rock was thrown, on the other side of the Atlantic.

There is too little karma in the world, so whoever came up with the idea of stretching the Bush Doctrine to include the use of covert hit squads on individuals in sovereign nations probably isn’t suffering anywhere near as much as they deserve. The reasoning went that there were extremists everywhere, hiding in plain sight in muslim communities and flaunting their radical credentials. These were in countries that couldn’t readily be invaded. Old Europe may not have been the greatest allies in the War On Terror, but the USA couldn’t rightly threaten them the way they could with smaller, darker nations. So they had to be more sneaky and inventive.

They turned to the many flourishing private security companies, for deniability’s sake, presented a list of people they were certain were wannabe terrorists and offered on the head of each one. As with everything Blackwater et al touched, it rapidly became about the profits and within weeks there were multiple teams wandering around Europe tracking down extremists and terminating with extreme prejudice. They managed to correctly target extremists oe time out of three and weren’t all that fussed about collateral.

The team operating in Manchester were right with their first hit. In fact their use of the bomb makers own materials to take them out was inspired. The inspiration was lost on the woman who lived next door, who was also killed in the blast.

Their second hit was on an outspoken, but otherwise innocent, local student. He and his family died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a heater that had obviously been tampered with. The local community had an idea what was going on and had the luxury of being able to jump to the conclusion without the need for evidence that held the Police up. After all, everybody knew what had happened in Paris, Hamburg, Berlin and elsewhere.

And the culprits were easy enough to spot- big swaggering Americans with oversized jackets that likely hid weapons and body armour. They hadn’t been recruited from the top of the covert infiltration class, no matter how good their other skills were. Walking around as a group, dressed as they were, in the middle of the local market just drew attention. Attention became antagonism and then violence, to which they responded with firepower.

By the time the Police got to the market five people were dead, and many more injured The hitmen were holed up in a pound shop that the youth of Longsight were threatening to torch. The first officer on the scene wasn’t even a real policeman. The asian Community Support Officer was known to most of the stone throwers and respected enough that they heeded his calls to back off whilst and take the injured to safety. Then, however, he tried to do the same for the assassins. Trapped, scared and out of their depth, they panicked and shot him Which started the whole process off again. In the end Police marksmen found themselves being stoned by rioters and having to shoot the assassins who were firing into the angry mob.

A lot of blood, a lot of names on the plaque.


NaNoWriMo first draft- Storage and cashflow

Notes I’m world building as I go along here. The result may not be a very coherent tale, but will probably serve as the basis for a fully realised project after the month is over. It’s going to get even more jumbled as I start jumping about and covering subjects as they occur to me, no matter where they end up in the timeline or finished tale. My apologies to City fans for what I’ve done to Maine Road.

I had wondered at the heavy tog duvet in my room, but I’d forgotten I was back in Britain. Years in the south of France have left me a little nesh and used to the warmth. An arm that sneaked out in the night whipped right back in, recoiling from the cold. I love this town, and it’s not really that chilly, but I wonder if I can get used to the weather again.

Other things interrupt my sleep, dreams of a forest and guns- the very moment I decided to come home. I wrap the duvet around myself to form a coccoon and sleep nearly to noon when I finally drift off.

I’m going to need more warm clothes until I get used to the lower temperature. I feel like such a wuss, where’s my Northern hardiness? For now I put on some extra layers and a heavy leather jacket I picked up on the way through London.

It’s not raining. I’d psyched myself up to expect constant precipitation, so that’s a pleasant surprise. I step out into a bright, crisp autumn day and go hunting for food and money.

There are a lot of vegetarian options everywhere. Meat is a lot more expensive nowadays, or maybe priced a lot more realistically, and local, seasonal veg is filling the gap. I go for roast, curried squash and potatoes, warming and filling, with big chunks of bread instead of rice to soak up the sauce.

My wallet has several partitions in it, but still not enough to separate the many different currencies I’ve picked up on my travels. There are a few French local currencies that I didn’t manage to get rid of, some London chits, Euros- which remain the most stable and most acceptable currency in the world, even some pounds, and my Curry Mile dollars. I lay them out on the counter to see what’s acceptable currency in the local fast food outlets. The owner tuts, but slides the London currencies into the acceptable pile beside the Euros and pounds. “Where are these from?” he points at the various French chits.

“France.”

“France? You been to France?”

“Just got back.”

“They had it hard over there. Harder than here.”

“I was in Paris when it kicked off.”

He shakes his head in shame. “I always wanted to go to Paris.”

“You’d be surprised what’s still there. But give it a couple more years before checking it out.”

“Can I keep one of these? The French ones? For my wall?” he gestures to a pin board on the back wall, decorated with postcards and multi coloured currencies.

“Can I have some bhajis to go?”

As a bonus, the bhajis are straight out of the fryer and almost too hot to hold in their waxed paper envelope. I stand in the middle of the road, watching the cyclists go past from a traffic island. I’m looking for a shop with the double plus sign outside, showing it’s part of the trust network of international exchange.

I’ve got money in recognised and accredited banks but that’s got to be vetted and work its way through various levels of bureaucracy before it can be accessed from a British bank. There’s not a lot of trust for large international transfers at the moment, so they’re monitored closely. And, before I can even start that process, I’ll have to get a new British account or find out what state the old one is in. Luckily a secondary network of exchange has developed. Its legality is dubious, but it’s tolerated because of the problems that shutting it down would cause. I’ve got some data stashed on a thumb drive that basically guarantees that I have deposited cash and goods to the value of several thousand Euros with another double plus trader in Apt. My Mancunian double plus trader will give me Euros or local currency to the same value (minus fee, of course), safe in the knowledge that the money will be transferred to them by the slow official route on production of the encrypted key.

I was looking for a pawn shop, but found my double plus trader in a jewellery shop. The thumb drive goes into a battered old PC nestled beside the cash till and Pretty Good Protection matches the code and spits out the numbers. Meanwhile the greying man behind the counter balances glasses on his large nose and studies my passport. “France….” he says, not asking for or expecting a reply.

After flipping through my travel history, more for curiosity than security, he slides the pasport back to me and leans to the computer screen, nodding. “How would you like your money?”

“Cash?”

“Thats a lot of cash. Do you not have a bank acount?”

“I don’t know.” It has been five years since I put money into it or transferred any out. I know that others’ accounts have been frozen for less, so I’m not holding out much hope.

“If you think it has been stolen by the government my brother has experience releasing such funds.” He has started counting out money onto the counter, “I will give you his card.”

I get to keep the reformatted thumb drive, for what little capacity it has. I haven’t worn the money belt for a while, I haven’t had that much cash to carry around, so I go back to the hotel to get it. I turn the laptop on, I might as well. There are messages for me. Several of them are along the lines of “Bloody hell, I thought you were dead!” One is intriguing. It’s from the account of Kieth, a guy I worked with for a while who remained a friend, but it’s signed ‘Sally’. Has Kieth had a sex change, or has Sally hijacked his acount? The message gives me an address in Levenshulme and says I should drop in any weekday afternoon.

Another message is from the storage company, saying they have located my locker and I can collect the keys from their local franchisee- the very same jewellers that was my local double plus. He’s surprised to see me back. “You want to put some money back into the system?” I explain about my lock-up and slide my passport over the counter again. “That is a different database. Or I could have done this for you earlier.” He chuckles, making great play of checking my passport again and comparing the picture inside. Satisfied, he wanders off into the back room and there’s the sound of a heavy door being unlocked. He comes back with two keys on a ring. “There you are. There is twenty four hour access, when I have given you the code for the pad on the gate.”

“Are there any other sevices you offer? Am I likely to be back in here asking for anything else?”

“Maybe. I don’t sell much jewellery any more. These days luxury is….. a luxury. But thirty years in this business mean people trust me in matters of money. So it is easy for me to take on roles that require me to be trusted.”

The tag on the key ring gives the address of the yard where my box is stored. I look at it for a while before having to ask “Is that right.”

The shopkeeper cum moneylender cum key holder puts the glasses back on his nose, checks the tag and nods, “I’m afraid it is. You know how to get there?”

There is no trace of Maine Road football ground left. Unless you count the negative indicator of a big open space where it used to stand. They never got around to the housing development promised when Manchester City up and moved across town to the former Commonwealth games stadium. It found an alternate use soon enough.

My container is on the western end, farthest from the gate. It’s a half sized shipping container butted against another and at the bottom of a stack of four. Several frantic, and often interrupted, telephone calls had led to this container arriving on the back of a lorry outside my old flat and several of my friends helping to load it on the promise that they could “look after” anything they really liked until I got back. I’m surprised how full it is when I swing the door open.

It’s going to take a while to work through this treasure trove, but my first target can be seen on top of the shorter stack of crates. It takes a lot of swearing, tugging and rearranging to get the bike out. It’s the fixie I had built out of a second hand frame and scavenged parts, that I never really got around to riding. My friends were scared of it, especially its lack of brakes. It looks like someone coveted the urbanised mountain bike enough to take that though.

One of the crates I moved to get at the bike contains cycling spares and accessories, including two locks complete with keys and a back pack. I have transport.

I pull down another crate and look inside. There’s nothing really special about the contents, I get the feeling every box will be capable of making me well up like this. There are cds, dvds and a few magazines. Actually, the magazines don’t look at all familiar. I might have forgotten them, but a check of cover dates tells the story. My subscriptions carried on whilst I was away, at least for a while. The information’s half a decade out of date, but it’s more reading material. I stuff the magazines into the back pack.

The next crate offers up a real treasure. A one terabyte external hard drive. With luck this still has all my old photos, gigs of music, a few unfinished novels and the back up of my desktop computer from the day before I left the country. It may even have some porn on it. It, too, goes into the backpack.

It’s getting dark, and I haven’t found any lights yet. I noticed last night that not all of the street lights come on at night. Until I’m certain of the safety of night time riding I think I’ll take what I’ve found and head back to the hotel.


First draft NaNoWriMo- It’s Odd To Be Back

Note This is a first draft, but I’ve decided to share my NaNoWriMo progress as I go along. We’ll see how I get on. The idea is to write a travelogue of the narrator’s return home after being far too close to some momentous events. How his old home has changed whilst he’s been away, and what kept him away so long, will be revealed as he feels like making it known. Any comments are welcome. There are bound to be loads of continuity errors before I go through and do the second draft, but it’ll help to have them pointed out.

My taxi is powered by a well known local kebab chain. In fact all the motorised cabs in the taxi rank had a rosette around the filler cap championing their source of biodiesel. I’d have taken one of the pedal rickshaws, but my baggage is heavy and I doubt they would have been able to haul it.

“Are you up from London then?” the taxi driver asks.

“No. I’ve come over from Europe.” This surprises him, I see the twitch of his head as he looks at me in the rear view mirror.

“Were you there long?”

“A while.”

I used to say I never planned to leave Manchester- until I went travelling for a month that turned into five years. A lot has happened in those years, a lot that has kept me away from home. Which is a shame, because a lot of interesting and important stuff has happened here whilst I’ve been away. Less spectacular, but arguably more important, than the stuff I was nearly part of. I’ve made a living covering the events in France and elsewhere, but I want to write about something positive for a while. And I want to meet all my old friends, and find out whether they’ve still got any of my stuff.

There aren’t many vehicles on the road. Buses, other biodiesel or ethanol powered vehicles, some electric cars and bikes. Lots and lots of bikes. Some sections look like old snapshots from India or China, the two wheeled masses blocking much of the road. I can’t help wondering where my bikes are, this would be so much more relaxing to ride through than the old days of constantly dodging motorised road users.

Most of the cycles flocking around the taxi are quite basic, old school even. Lugged and brazed steel tube frames in the traditional sit up and beg arrangement, quite a few of them single speeds. I get the feeling there’s a factory, or at least a workshop, somewhere nearby turning these things out. I shall have to investigate.

We move out of the centre at pedal pace, which isn’t much slower than the old motorised pace. I’ve booked into a hotel in Rusholme, not that far from one of the branches of the kebab chain that powers my taxi. So that’s dinner sorted. Through snail mail and email I have told people I’m on my way, but you don’t just turn up on someone’s doorstep after five years away. So I’ll set up camp in the hotel and then go visiting.

The taxi driver accepts Euros, and offers change in a variety of currencies. “What’s a Levy?”

“It’s Levenshulme money. One of those LETS things? Local shops and people take them instead of real money.”

The list gives exchange rates. This is a taxi, so I expect them to be somewhat less than I’d get elsewhere. And we’re not in Levenshulme, so I should go for an even more local currency. I’ll take it in Curry Mile dollars please.”

Tipping generously gets me some help carrying my bags up to my room. They’re heavy because everything I want to keep from the last five years is in them. Turmoil has done wonders to cut down my hoarding instinct, but I’m still a sucker for comics and books. Most of one bag is made up of mensuels and samizdat one sheets I haven’t got round to reading yet. I have a week’s worth of clothes, two very small laptops, a number of peripherals, some very clever cabling and a few mementoes. Everything I left in Manchester, if it hasn’t been further dispersed, is spread around the homes of friends or in a self storage container I arranged remotely and don’t really know the location of.

The hotel is actually three terraced houses, and the rooms are more like bedsits. My room is the top floor of the middle house, a bedroom, bathroom and storage room. I share a hallway and the front door with the two rooms downstairs. I plug the laptops in to charge and head out for food.

The Curry Mile isn’t as gaudy as it used to be, there’s a distinct lack of neon. It’s still nowhere near a mile long either but it doesn’t really have anywhere to expand into. The menus have some interesting additions. “Rabbit kebab?” The man behind the counter gives me a look like I’m from outer space. Evidently they’ve been selling Thumper in a naan for a while now and only an idiot wouldn’t know about it.

“Yes? You want one?”

“Sure, why not.”

The rabbit chunks on the skewer look like darker chicken meat. It sizzles satisfyingly when he puts it onto the coals. “Where do you get rabbit meat from?”

“Local grown. A farm in Cheshire.”

I want to ask more, but he goes back to kneading dough into naan. So I stare out of the window at the stream of cycles, chip fat taxis and electric cars that are passing by. It’s odd to be back.

The rabbit is tough, but very tasty. It’s not as if I’ve never eaten it before, it was just a surprise to find it in a kebab shop.

Now I want to sleep. It’s been nearly four day’s journey to get here from the south of France and I have that wiped out but not really tired lethargy of sitting around for extended periods. GMT is only seven o’clock. I could go out or I could go to sleep, but I don’t really want to do either. So I decide to do some wireless sniffing.

I’ve accumulated a bag of kit that’s larger than both laptops combined, just for the finding of and connection to wireless nodes. But I don’t really need any of it, because the lights on my little keychain sniffer are all green. Urban networks always have better coverage, but too much time spent in valleys and small towns have left me paranoid. There are more than enough open nodes, so I pick one and I’m away.

It turns out Manchester, and the Northwest in general, has a good wired and unwired network. Connections to the rest of the world are spotty as always but they’re getting better slowly. I’ve even had a few emails from the Divided States, where I seem to be getting ever more readers. I fire off a few replies and tell Manchester in general that I am here, then start on my notes for the day.

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but when I roused it was dark outside and the computer screen was filled with 3s where I’d slumped against the keyboard.