Thursday, 7 November 2013

Burnt Cottage - A short story I wrote for Free For All (a collaboration with Conway and Young)

I received an email from the artists Conway and Young, asking if I would contribute a piece of writing to their 'Free For All' project: Here's the info I got about Free For All:

On the 5th July 2013 it was the 65th anniversary of the founding of the NHS; a healthcare system that is free to everyone at the point of delivery, based on clinical need, not ability to pay. In 2013 the Welfare State, including the NHS, faces many and various challenges that threaten its future. What might a future without a public health service look and feel like? ////// THE YEAR IS 2078 AND THE NHS NO LONGER EXISTS //////  To create a collaborative contemplation on the significance of the NHS, we have invited 65 people to speculate about it’s future; to generate cautionary tales, proffer a warning, invent dystopian visions, and offer practical advice on how to adjust to coping without it. (2013) 

Burnt Cottage is the piece I created in response to their email...

Burnt Cottage

20th Sept 2078

Dear Conrad,

Not one sentence into this letter and I realize, I’ve only gone and used your real name. You and Lorraine (there, I remembered to use her code name so that’s something isn’t it?) will be very cross with me. I’m sorry, but I do need to write and I’ve no more paper to start again. I hope by the end of this letter you’ll understand. And you can always burn it once you’ve read it can’t you?

It does feel odd, trying to form words with a pen. I haven’t done it in years. Though I do hear pen and ink are making a comeback with a certain set of young people. The ones who can afford it. I hear they write sonnets about love. Very affected you’ll say, no doubt. But all the same, it’s all the rage. I’ve heard. Love poems written down on paper. For the lucky ones. Well good for them. I mean it. If their parents have enough money to buy pens and paper, so their children can dream words to rhyme with heartfelt feeling? If they can manage that, then we should be glad for them. We should love! I mean it. I know you and your Lorraine think we should all be taking to the streets, throwing stones and goodness knows what else. But that’s not really my idea of a nice trip out and besides, while I know you know a good deal about politics, I really can’t see how the children are the enemy. The parents perhaps, but the children? They’re just kids, love. They cannot all be - what did you describe them as? Over Christshoptime this year? Oh, it did shock me. Didn’t it? That’s right! You said these rich children were ‘all spoilt, spawn of the uber-class, blindly carrying the sins of their parents into the world, propagating death, sadness and class war in a lazy, half-conscious manner, because they choose to close their eyes and know no better’. That’s about the gist I think. Well? Like I said then, that does seem quite harsh. Some of them must be nice. They must. Kindness is natural. I read that somewhere. Some people are good. Even if the moors are burning and the ice of the north is a long forgotten dream. While there is life son, there is hope. The laws of nature say that at least one of those well fed children, strapped into the huge gun turreted tractors their parents drive through the burning streets, speeding them from their violin lessons to their Cantonese-for-business sessions, swaddled in body armour? One of them must be a good-hearted soul who really means well. No matter who their parents are. Do you see? So, bear that in mind before you go planting any of those devices that you and Lorraine were whispering about when you thought I wasn’t listening. As it turns out I was. And I have to say, I do not approve. Though I know you’ll do what you think is best.  You always do.

That was not what I sat down to write to you about. This is the problem with marijuana isn’t it? It really helps with the pain but it just makes you feel all floaty and smashing. And then you forget what your point is. Or was. Anyway, this last batch you managed to get for me is excellent. So much better than the sawdust from last time. But I must be ‘coming up’ as you call it, because I don’t seem to be able to keep focus. 

Oh but it is nice not to have to worry about my back for a moment or two. 

Anyway, getting back to the point before it sails off again. 

I don’t want you to get cross. I just want you to sit down and read this all calmly and to try ever so hard not to fly off like you do, with your tit-for-tat violence. The bloodstains I’ve had to try and wash out of your shirts over the years! If you think about it? None of those killings ever made things better Conrad did they? So, for once in your life, just stop and listen to your Mother.

My back is the problem, as you know. And it’s not getting better. So I decided to start saving those coke labels. Do not worry; after you explained things, I never drink the disgusting global-capitalist fizzy muck anymore. I promise. I just went through the bins near that new apartment-blockade. It didn’t take many months to save up. Last week I finally had enough labels to claim my 5-minute introductory session at Medi-Coke. The boy I saw was lovely (I was lucky, I got one who is very close to graduating) and he gave me 10 minutes instead of 5, which was very kind. Remember that, if you do go planting bombs. Don’t you dare do it at Medi-Coke because that boy is trying hard to do what’s right.  Anyway, he checked me over. And then he got quite upset. I don’t think he can have got to the bit in his course about dealing with sad news yet. Which is my way of saying that the problem is bigger than we hoped love. And Marijuana isn’t going to be able to help what I’ve got forever. You understand?

I think you do. 

I got up this morning and I was thinking about how to tell you. I can’t try and tell you in person. You’ll just get cross and start shouting about how ‘life isn’t fair’ and how ‘the system has to change’ and of course, you’re right, but all that shouting is very tiring when you’re feeling unwell. I would have sent you an email but my free Google account got swamped by junk mail again last week. I’ve no access now until next month. And this can’t wait. Luckily, I remembered I had some Basildon Bond. This notepaper. That’s what it’s called. My dear Gran used to write on airmail. Blue Basildon Bond airmail. I don’t know why. She didn’t know anyone overseas and only ever wrote notes to the neighbours complaining about the excessive level of noise they made while having sexual intercourse. She was a livewire. You would have liked her. When she died I got her pads and pens as a memento. One of those things you don’t know why you keep but you can’t throw away. And then years go by. Lately I wondered if the lot might have become valuable, what with the youngsters going back to paper. But no. ‘Too thin, mildewy and stained’. That’s what the man in the pawnshop said. So the pad just went back into my draw. And then this morning I remembered it. My handwriting is terrible of course. But here we are. Here I am. The moors are on fire, the birds that are left are being shot for pie and your old Mum is dying. They think they know what it is. They think they might be able to slow it down. For all that uncertainty it would still cost a fortune. We don’t have one. And if they don’t do anything, it’s going to be a very slow end. Which doesn’t bare thinking about does it? So, when I say I’m dying. What I actually mean is that by the time you read this letter, I’ll be dead. To be clear, I’m dead. I know you hate it when I get sentimental. So there you are. I’ve said it. I’m dead. And besides, you have wonderful eyesight, so you won’t have failed to notice me hanging from the apple tree in the garden before you got to the cottage and found this note. 

Unless of course it’s nighttime when you come round next? 

If that’s the case you may have missed seeing me hanging from the branches. The streetlights are forever on the blink with all of these power cuts, and you can’t see a thing out there when they’re not working. 

Oh Conrad, I wish I’d thought of that before I started that last paragraph. I’d have built up to it all a bit more gently. But there we are. I only have these few sheets, so there’s no going back now. The fact is, I’m dead and I’m hanging in the garden waiting for you to find me. 

So now you know. Please don’t be sad. I want you to know that I went very happily. I’ve got a plan. I’m going to finish this letter, build a huge joint just like you taught me, and then I’ll pop out to the garden and float up the step ladders (the ones your Father used to use for decorating) and then we’ll have done. Honestly, it’s for the best. I’m going with a total sense of calm and well being. I am! And none of this would be possible if it were not for you and Lorraine introducing me to illegal pain relief or a little thing called Die-Easy loan assistance. Which is the thing I wanted to mention to you. 

The important thing, which I think you might not like.

The Medi-Coke boy helped me apply for it. And I must say they’re so efficient. I got accepted just like that. So perhaps the government isn’t all bad after all? Conrad, I know you want to change the world and I love you for caring, but it’s exhausting love, when you’re ill. It’s just too much. Trying to imagine how things should be, could be, fighting for this and marching for that, instead of just making the most of the way things are. So the truth is, I know you won’t approve but I’m grateful for the assistance the government’s made available for ones like me and your Father who never saved. Or should I say, did save but who lost it all when Google got hacked and we all had to chip in to get the nation rebooted. Too big to fail said the P.M. and I’m certain he should know. Though I know that’s what you say was your ‘radicalizing moment’. But there we are. Officially it looks like me and your Dad never saved a drop. And that’s not fair but in the end Conrad, you have to just pick yourself up and smile. Dad’s not here to help now. Sometimes you have to face facts. The savings are gone. Deal with things as they are. And that’s what I’ve done. Because the diagnosis I was given last week, well, none of my options were looking very hopeful dear, until the lovely boy at Medi-Coke says ‘have you heard about the government’s Die-Safe Assistance scheme?’ Oh he did well up when he started to tell me about it. I do hope his lecturers help him toughen up a little. I think he’s going to struggle if he can’t say the word ‘cancer’ in his line of work, don’t you? But anyway, finding out about the scheme changed everything for me. I want you to know that it lifted a huge weight. 

It means I’ve been able to afford a new dress for the occasion. (Oh it is nice. I got it in a colour and style that I think Lorraine will suit, and I’ve left strict instructions with the Die-Safe people not to bury me in it. So make sure you get it for her, won’t you?) Also, I got get myself a five-year plan for the landfill. (The Medi-Coke Boy says 5 years is plenty. Paying for any longer is just a rip off. Which was kind of him, I think). And they even threw in a free 7-step guide to making a good clean drop, once I’d signed up… So it’s a very, very good deal Conrad. All that, in exchange for my little Burnt Cottage. Which seems very reasonable. Especially as you said you don’t believe in owning property. I thought, well if you’re not going to use it, the government might as well have it.

I hope that was the right thing to do? And you weren’t just saying that to impress Lorraine? I know she’s quite ‘straight edge’ as you call it.

All right then, I’ll start to sign off now. Be happy love. The most important thing in the world to me is that you, Lorraine and the Cats, sorry, the Kids, have a wonderful future.

All my love,

X Mum 

PS. I’m sorry I wrote the Cats instead of the Kids. That was a silly slip.

PPS. Conrad, I may as well just tell you. I couldn’t ever think of the Cats as your children. I know that will hurt you and Lorraine, but they have always just been Cats to me. Very nice ones, but just Cats all the same. I know you worry about breeding more humans into this world and have great faith that animals are the future, I know that. But I don’t think you can blame people if they try to shoot them for food. Times are difficult. I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to get hurt. It’s been worrying me and if I don’t bring it up now, when will I? 

PPPS. But that doesn’t mean that just because I don’t understand, I don’t love you. I’m your Mother. I love you whatever. If you choose to have a non-traditional family life it’s no ones business but yours and Lorraine’s is it? 

PPPPS. Please don’t go and find the Medi-Coke boy and hurt him. This was my decision. All mine and the Medi-Coke boy, was just trying to help. Sometimes hope comes in a strange package. But it is there. There is truly hope in every situation and I found mine in that young man. So be happy for me Conrad and don’t be sad. And don’t go getting angry and planning anything stupid or rash. And most of all, don’t forget to get the frock back for Lorraine. You may want to supervise me being cut down, just to make sure they don’t snag the material. I hear these landfill boys can be a bit slap dash. But don’t hold that against them, they have a lot of units to deal with. That’s what the Medi-Coke boy said. Try and remember people mean well, even when the best of them is not showing. 
PPPPPS. I’m sorry I couldn’t manage a sonnet. I tried but all I could think to rhyme with ‘dead’ were shed and bed. I’ve no mind for such things.  But I have got a heart full of love for you. 

I’m really going now.

X Mum

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