Mad Dogs and Englishwomen…

I was sitting in a little park today, around about 1 o’clock. This in itself was brave and/or disobedient of me as the Government has warned us all to stay indoors between 11 and 3 because The Sun Is Too Hot. Particularly if we are elderly, dehydration and heat stroke may just push us over the edge into Not Being Able To Cope. We may become Confused.

Thing was, I had just had my hair done. Well, that’s irrelevant. And I had just had my Free Eye Test. That’s irrelevant too. Thing was, I had to sit somewhere and eat my Boots packaged sandwiches and my car – but a few yards away – had been sitting in the sun all morning and would now be likely to Fry me if I attempted to sit in it without the engine running and the air-conditioning on full blast.

Yesterday morning I was delivering hundreds and hundreds of shiny little magazines round one of the less edifying sections of town. By mid-day I was tottering, despite my giant water bottle. Yes, I know I was out in the sun after 11, but I had to be. I only have ten days to deliver a whole garage-full (well, six boxes) and I can only manage one and a half hours at a time of trudging up and down people’s driveways, dragging my shopping trolley along behind me. You know, dog pee and garbage smell even worse when it’s hot? Most people’s front gardens seem to smell of that. Also, metal letter box flaps – when you can reach them for the discarded children’s tricycles, rusty old washing-machines and mountains of black bin sacks – burn your fingers. Wore foolish sun-hat. Didn’t think to wear gloves.

England is red hot. So, I gather, is most of Europe. Even Scandinavia is red hot and Scandinavia is such a cool place, usually. And in Japan it’s like, 40-something degrees. Here its somewhere between 30 and 35 depending on which newspaper you believe (Fake Weather!). And it doesn’t get any cooler at night. And then the next day it’s just the same. And the next night. How I long for snow, for a prolonged and arctic winter.

Anyway, in this little park there are gravestones, crowded into a narrow strip down the left hand side. They are very old gravestones, with names weather-faded in strange curly scripts, with ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s. They are long-gone people, with nobody to visit them and somebody on the Council, at some point, must have thought it a good idea to repurpose their graveyard as a little park. So they crammed all the gravestones, and those big box tombs, the sort you can sit upon to eat your sandwiches, into the strip down the left. Over the years they have developed a sort of earnest forward slant, as if desperate to escape.

I hate this. I have always hated this little park and seeing again what they did to those dead people. And funnily enough, it is unpopular. Only me in it today, and the Council gardening truck, the door flung open and a man’s booted foot just visible, poking out the passenger side and resting on the dashboard. He too is eating his sandwiches.

It’s not as if they’ve even done much to it. There were all these tall trees, but now they’ve cut them down, all but the stumps, from which leaves are still trying to grown. There’s a kind of dead-looking large shrub thing in the middle, and they’ve cut out a few random rectangular flower beds. This year every flower bed is planted with red geraniums. What is the point of red geraniums?

But you know how you can be looking at something for a while and then, suddenly, something strikes you as significant. I was eating my (interminable) sandwich in the heat of the midday sun, and staring at the yellow-brown grass of the Nasty Little Park, and comparing it to pictures I had seen on the news of Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, where the grass is also dying from lack of rain. And suddenly I saw it – the pattern of the graves of all those poor dead people, whose memorial stones were penned in on the left hand side. There they were, quite clearly – squares and rectangles, even and uneven, resurfaced from long ago.

I could have cried, actually, but it was too hot. Normally covered by lush green grass, now here they all were. I have seen aerial photos of similar things. With the earth being all scorched, this year it has become possible for archaeologists to see the outlines of unknown Roman Villas, or extra circles of wall beyond the known walls of castles. And with the reservoirs drying up, it has become possible once again to see the villages that were drowned in their making, outlines of cottages people once lived in, little stone bridges they once walked over.

And for the first time it occurred to me to ask, what did they do with all the people? Did they dig up all the bones and toss them into some unmarked pit? Did they consecrate them, hold some sort of service? Or are the people all still there, exactly where they were, arranged in this slightly eccentric grid pattern?

They’re all still here, I thought. One way or another, in bone or in spirit. And they’re accusing us.

The Tempting of Aoife

Aoife observes that the Guide is bored, taking this group of people round the power station, and uncomfortable in her tight navy uniform. The Guide is a woman of a certain age, so flushing may be a problem; and it can’t help that the uniform was designed with lengthy, windswept winters in mind, but there’s a heat-wave going on outside. A primitive air-conditioning system is just recycling the hot air, distilling the stuffiness. There is a smell of metal and dust, and maybe something else. Would nuclear power have a smell of its own? The Guide has bristly, striped-greying hair like a badger and a sprinkling of tiny red dots on her upper lip, which would be needle-marks from a recent electrolysis session.

Aoife McKendrick notices details like this. Connections snap themselves together in her mind so rapidly and effortlessly that she long since gave up trying to trace them back to any logical source. She would have made a good Sherlock Holmes, she often thinks. What she does not think is that her thought processes are wild and unpredictable, like cables arcing out in a flooded tunnel. She does not think of herself as dangerous.

Aoife has never told anybody about Bub, partly because they would say she is mad, and she is not mad, or if she is mad it’s none of their business. Degenerates! And partly because it’s such a foolish name, the sort a child might attach to their invisible friend. She thinks she knows where Bub comes from – that faint, continual buzzing of wasps, or maybe flies – is another clue. But she doesn’t believe in Where Bub Comes From, and Bub is not a friend. Bub is not something that sits upon her shoulder and whispers in her ear: it’s more subtle than that.

Bub tells her that the human race is doomed, eventually, anyway, but that the process needs to be speeded up. In visions sometimes he shows her the whole world, and she sees how it is infested, gnarled and infected by these filthy apes with their overstuffed brains and their lack of moral perspective. She sees how they are polluting the seas and even the atmosphere around this planet, how their detritus will eventually spill out into the furthest reaches of space, how they and their waste products will be everywhere, soon. She sees the murders in back alleys, the addicts shooting up, the children raped and the animals slaughtered and mistreated. Bub shows her all, and it is true. Something must be done about it. Bub wants her to do it.

There have been rumours on social media, about a Red Button. The Red Button, here, in this power station. These stories started popping up on the net about a year ago; before that Aoife had not really thought of Britain as having a Red Button at all. But it made sense that any nuclear nation would have a Red Button, and that it would be hidden somewhere inside their own country, and what more sensible place to hide it than a nuclear power station? This one is particularly remote, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands surrounded by purple heather and rabbits, and the kind of game bird that turns a snowy white in winter. A beautiful place….

Until they built a power station in it!” The background buzzing is quite loud this time. It tends to get louder the angrier Bub was. He tends to get angry if he catches her thinking that things are beautiful, or that people are not so bad.

They have come up on a day trip from the University of Edinburgh, where Aoife has been working on her MSc in biochemistry. Of themselves, power stations are of little interest to her and of little relevance to her studies, but this one – this particular one might just possibly be the home of the Red Button. She had seen a small poster advertising the visit on one of many scruffy, overcrowded notice-boards at uni. It was partly covered over by newer posters, but the date was still visible, and hadn’t happened yet.

Time to further pursue our investigations,” says Bub. “An opportunity not to be missed, and one unlikely to arise again.” Bub can be wordy at times. He speaks like a civil servant, Aoife thinks, or a police officer giving a televised statement.

Aoife lingers towards the back of the group, looking from side to side rather than ahead, where the Guide leads them, perspiring whilst explaining about fuel rods, graphite powder, the purpose of the little blue badges they had been given to wear on their lapels, etcetera. Earlier they had been forced to watch a scratchy film in which protons and electrons were depicted as billiard balls of different colours and sizes, whizzing – but conveniently slowly – about one another. How many generations have passed since people stopped conceiving of atoms as slowly-whizzing, different coloured billiard balls, she wonders.

She’s looking out for a door left ajar, perhaps, or an unattended corridor that might take her closer to the rumoured Red Button. Even now she can scarcely imagine that there could be such a thing, and that if it really is here they can be so cavalier about it, when visitors are about.

The human ape, in its arrogance and conceit, has an amazing propensity for carelessness,” Bub reminds her, neither on her shoulder nor quite inside her head. Sometimes Aoife wonders whether Bub is male or female. It seems to be both, or neither; or either one, depending on its mood…

And then, to her left, she spots it. Down a narrow green-painted corridor a heavy door has been left open, and from it spills a faint, reddish light. It isn’t difficult to slip away from the group. There are cameras in the corridor ceiling, she notices, but they do not alter their position to follow her as she tiptoes towards the door. The floor is made of springy silver metal, with raised patterns.

And there it is, a small room with nothing else inside it but a plinth upon which sits the Red Button; an enormous button, to fit a giant’s hand. Will she even have the strength to push it, she wonders. Will she have the courage? She is suddenly very nervous. Pressing it will result in her own destruction as well as everyone else’s. What will it feel like to die in such a violent way? She finds she cannot console herself with a paradise flowing with milk and honey and endlessly available virgins, or angels perched on clouds and playing harps… she can manufacture no belief in such things. What will Nothing At All feel like?

No more of me whispering in your ear,” says Bub. Bub knows her so very well. Silence, peace and quiet, a rest from Bub is an attractive prospect.

Aoife is momentarily afraid to cross the threshold in case the heavy metal door slams shut behind her. In films, that’s what always happens. Whether it is a heavy metal door, a secret panel or a concealed stone door in a cave on some distant planet, it always swings shut behind you. But she can read what is stencilled on the button, even from the doorway. It says: DO NOT PRESS.

It is those words that make it easy. For who can resist the urge to press any button that says DO NOT PRESS? It just has to be done, just as cliffs have to be jumped off and ledges on skyscraper buildings become unbearably confining, so that one must take flight…

Aoife strides towards the button. Shutting her eyes very tight, she presses it.

fruitfly

Thinking about it at her leisure – and she is to have a lot of leisure – she realises that any actual nuclear missile would take time to be despatched towards – the enemy, whoever they currently are – and many more minutes for it to reach its target. And then there would be an interlude of forty minutes or so before the enemy’s retaliation arrived. But at the time she was expecting a blast of shrapnel to rip through her, or at the very least to be deafened by klaxons or sirens. She was expecting lights to flash and all hell instantly let loose.

She isn’t expecting crude masculine laughter. Nor is she expecting, when she does manage to unglue her eyelids from one another, to see that an unremarkable rectangular wall-panel has transformed itself into a window, and that behind the glass are three uniformed security guards in high-backed black chairs, laughing and pointing at her.

Gotcha!

Bagged us another one, Harry. That’ll be three this month.

And then the door clangs shut.

fruitfly

Two year later Aoife McKendrick is discharged from the secure mental health facility in which she has been being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The authorities soon realised that she is not connected with the worrying phenomenon of Killer Queens, as the newspapers have started to call them – a surge in the number of young white women, seemingly unknown to each other, who have come to the conclusion that the human race is too vile to survive and that they are the ones to do the exterminating.
They have decided that Aoife McKendrick falls into a more familiar and explicable category: she is merely insane. Common or garden madness was normal in comparison to this mysterious, cold, destructive instinct that had arisen in women all over the globe. Aoife could be started on anti-psychotics. A bright young woman, by all accounts. No reason she shouldn’t return to her studies once her illness had been got under control.

Aoife is happy too, for she is finally free of the buzzing, and the insistent voice of her tormentor and companion, Bub.

She grew up a plain girl, fat and rather spotty, but during her two years in the facility the excess blubber has dropped off, without her even trying. The food was dull and there wasn’t enough of it for the old Aoife, but it was wholesome. Her acne gradually subsided. Towards the end of her sentence she selected as one of her therapeutic activities a few afternoons of Cosmetic Therapy, tutored by a visiting beautician. By the time she steps out into late summer sunshine at the end of her two years she looks like a new woman. In her bag is a letter from the University of Edinburgh, welcoming her back to finish the MSc in biochemistry.

And it is a beautiful day. The flowers in parks and gardens are somewhat past their prime, but the bees are buzzing. Honey is being made. Her past need not be spoken of, they have said, as long as she keeps on taking the tablets. There will always be a need for promising scientific minds like hers.

Of course, dear Aoife,” says Bub, resuming their dialogue as if he only paused it a second ago, “the Red Button is merely a metaphor.

It will have occurred to you by now that there is more than one kind of button, and that it doesn’t have to be red.

It doesn’t even have to be a button.