The Conference

I have always thought I could become an expert at something, but what? Somehow bring myself to focus in on the minute detail of some corner of history or science, in truth I can barely focus long enough to vacuum, but somewhere I have always thought I would be able to espouse wisdom on some such topic at dinner parties. In my head the whole table are always enraptured as I drop pearls of factual delight, when in fact I have met such people myself and turned immediately away and began to discuss the weather.

I remember one particular erudite person I sat next to at dinner who saw nothing more than the back of my shoulder for the entire evening and to make it worse I was wearing a particularly ghastly brown paisley thing with a mosquito bite on the edge of my shoulder for good measure. No I lack the application, the attention span for expertise, but I can do generality which makes what happened seem quite odd. I think perhaps there was a moment of confusion, a point at which someone thought I was something else, someone else.

And so I found myself on the stage, in front of the audience, with a lap top open before me. Of course the audience could see the slides, but I could see the slides and the speaking notes. And what could I do, but speak. I did not think I could say, there’s been a mistake, I am not this person. I am not even presenting at this conference, I am just here with my partner.

So I gave the speech, at the conference, the conference I was only attending with my partner. Its not easy you know, to stand up and speak, to follow the words when you have not read them before at all. But I did and there was rapturous applause, and to be honest I am not even sure what the speech was about. I don’t pretend to remember a word of it but it was well received.

I feigned a stomach bug instead of dinner only for it to be reported to me (by my partner who had not attended that session but was watching another session at the time) what a standout performance it had been. The highlight of the day, maybe even the conference. I said nothing, what could I say? He would want to know why and I even now, am not sure why.

I tried not to think about it, stayed in my room. I was embarrassed by it, until my partner mentioned that it was available on a website, me giving her speech. He had watched it, said what a great speaker she was. I thought he was joking, he had realised but it seemed not. I googled it, there I was, me- giving her speech, with her name on the banner underneath. My first thought was to get in touch, apologise. But I just wasn’t brave enough, wasn’t bold enough and the moment passed and we travelled home.

And then it came, a week later, by post, not even by email, a short note, three words, ‘We should meet.’ And so there I stood, waiting outside the coffee shop for the woman I had impersonated, who’s speech I had given. I had no idea what to say, I was so embarrassed. And there she was, a little taller than me, same hair colour sort of, different colouring, not my sense of style.

And so we sat for coffee and she thanked me and showed me her other speeches, all of them given by different women, all of them just whoever was there, like some kind of weird experiment, and that’s what it was, at least how it started – as some weird experiment. She had a mad fear of public speaking and so at conferences she angled it so someone else gave her speech and she discovered that almost no one spoke up, no woman took exception and nor did the men, men who knew who it was, who knew it wasn’t her, said nothing. All of them complicit.

And then she told me more, she wasn’t the only one, lots of women did it, they just subbed in to whoever was close to the stage. There was a club, a group, on line, off line, all of them, quietly lauding their victories. It had long since stopped being a way of avoiding public speaking and become more a way of just subtly undermining the status quo.

She gave me her card with a phone number, in case I ever had to speak at my own conference. She said she would arrange it, make it happen so someone else could speak. She said she couldn’t remember the last time any woman ever gave her own speech at an international conference. It just doesn’t happen.

Of course, I was horrified, I would never do such a thing, until of course. It was just a small speech, a nothing speech, a tiny conference, a nothing topic, a general topic, nothing specific, but well, I mean you would, wouldn’t you? And no one noticed, and no one was harmed and so the chain goes on. And if you are speaking next, well get in touch, we can sort something out.

Hit the button if you like it!


The persistence of Cupid

Strangers eyes
On a passing train
They don’t see each other again

He zigs
She zags
They miss each other
By half a bag

She is early
He is late
Their paths never cross
There is no fate

She sits in her office
He eats at his desk
Even in the lift
They’ve never met

She swipes left
He swipes past
Even with a phone
They don’t have a chance

In a world of isolation
Cupid has it tough
Slings his arrows where he can
But its rarely enough

He sits on the steps
He will not admit defeat
He will find an answer
A way for them to meet

He strokes his bow and arrow
He thinks its meant to be
A way for one and one
For them to be a ‘we’

Time passes
She is hit by a bus
Comatose for days
She does not wake up

He finds it hard to sleep
Takes a lot of pills
He does the same
Never left a will

Somewhere Cupid smiles

In a strange twist of irony
The hidden hand of fate
They are buried side by side
It is never too late

It’s time to change jobs

As I lie in bed, I feel my body.
Literally I touch it.
And feel it.



I have been in this job too long.
I creep out of bed in the morning, a mess of vines
Veins fading into woodwork.

I stumble to the train
Out of the station to my desk
And then I stupefy.



I morph into something bigger. A large trunk, some branches. I cover my whole desk. I root myself in the floor. Clasping the carpet with delicate filaments searching for the moisture left by sweaty feet.  Leaves. The computer gets absorbed in. Seen and then unseen. As if nature is claiming me back from all this technology. The lights flicker on the screen inside of me. Flicker again. Flicker out.

I thirst. In the bright sunshine. Through the glass in the window. I thirst. I am a tree. I wait for the water. I never knew how thirsty a tree could be. Not hunger, just thirst. I see people work around me. I grow outward and upward and no one knows what to do. I hear them talking, feel the voices vibrate in my leaves.

And then, then it rains.
I see it splash on the window.
Sweet delicious water. I grow.


Through the ceiling.
Heavier and heavier on that floor.
I drink my fill.

I teeter.
I totter.
Teeter, totter.

And then I crash downward with the weight of it all. I work on the seventh floor. Down I plummet through six floors of masonry. False floor after false ceiling after false floor in a false world. I fall down, down, down and the building crashes around me. I can hear the vibration of people screaming in the rain.

I teeter.
I totter .
I let myself fall sideways.

Onto the pavement.
All over the road.
Then I feel myself again.

Literally, I touch my arms, my legs.
I am no longer a tree.
I sit on the pavement.

I am wearing yellow.
It is sunshine again.
I look around me.


I get up and walk away.
I guess I really needed that.

I put her in the drawer

There is only one lockable drawer in our house and I have the key. The other day I went to the drawer. I took out all the important papers that are kept safe under lock and key. I put them somewhere unsafe, unlocked and without a key. To would be thieves and passers by and probably the rest of humanity the drawer would now seem empty. It is not empty. I have filled it with something else. 

Next week I will start my new job. It is an important job, a good job, a job with a big title and a nice salary. It is full time. I will put on my new suit. I will fluff my hair and shine my shoes. I will walk out the door a new and different person.

The other day I went to the drawer and I put ‘her’ in it. I stood in front of it and I spoke to it. I know people don’t talk to furniture generally. Although I occasionally swear at the couch or the rug when I have stubbed my toe but one does not generally chat with the décor.

I did. I put her in the drawer, that other me.

I stood at the drawer and I told it all the other people I could be, the people I wanted to be, all the people that this job means I will never be or see or do. The things that money and pieces of paper that say how smart you are can never buy. I put the second child I will never have in there. I put the dream of being a writer. I took it carefully out of my mouth and tucked it up underneath next to my unborn second child.

I put the woman who just wants the time to pick up her only daughter after school into the drawer. I put the laughter from my daughter as she plays in the day time in there, it’s a noise I won’t hear- except on weekends. I wrapped it and tied it up and put it in the drawer. I put the mum who sits and watches her at gym in there, my pride at what she can do and my pride at how hard she tries. I put that in the drawer because I won’t see that now. 

I put the Mummy who gets frustrated and sometimes bored in there. Frankly I am not sure I shall miss her so much.  I put the woman who likes to sit on the deck in the late morning and have coffee in the drawer. I stood and let the words slip out of my mouth into the drawer. I wrapped each phrase, each hope and dream carefully and placed them side by side.

I stood there. I looked at them all parcelled up in a nice neat row that no one else can see or find or reach because the drawer looks empty. I think about the money and how I would give anything – but sometimes in life there is no anything, there are just things you have to do. Its about being a grown up. I will be the role model my daughter does not otherwise have and perhaps in a year I can buy a dog.

I will probably never own a dog, but I did not put that in the drawer. At least not yet.

I looked at the drawer. So very neatly empty to everyone but me. I closed it. I turned the key in the lock. I walked away. I have put ‘her’ in the drawer. Now I will be corporate, professional, serious, reserved and competent. I will have nice shoes and perfect hair and my suits will be demure and colourless. My handshake will be firm and my advice authoritative. I will be respected. I have put the other one, that other ‘her’, the bit that is ‘me-I have put ‘her’ in the drawer.

I walk past that drawer every day. I know that she is in there. Locked away. Safe. Patient. I should have thrown away the key. I should have walked down the road and launched it off the cliff.  Instead I take the key with me everywhere. I have put her in the drawer, but I have not let her go.

Corporate knowledge

It’s not like there is much choice, I have to retire. And the knowledge is theirs. It belongs to them. They have ‘facilitated the means by which I acquired it’ and they therefore own it. I am not exactly sure what form their facilitation has taken. A rather ordinary desk with some clunky IT and a wobbly chair-I am not sure I would call that ‘facilitation’. I have had to fix the chair myself several times…read more

I really should retire. I look around me and there are a lot of machines-robots-androids-whatever you want to call them. There are only a handful of humans here –well when I say handful I mean two. Me and another-both of us hanging on-and for what-I don’t know? Well I do know-mostly its avoidance.

I get it. When I retire they will want my brain. Not all of it obviously. I will need some of it myself, but they will want quite a lot of it. All that corporate knowledge I have accumulated in the 10 years I have worked here, that is what they will want. All of it, and I am obliged to give it.

There’s a procedure and it’s very safe. It wasn’t at first -but it is now. They will just plug me in and identify which bits of me, which electrodes and pathways I have stored away, are ‘corporate knowledge’ and then a robot will be given that download and will be able to do my job. Perfect. It’s painless and I understand that the knowledge I have accumulated doing this job does belong to them. It’s just that I am old school. And this feels intrusive. And I am worried they might take bits they aren’t entitled to. And there is no procedure for returning them. And. And. And. It’s a great word if you don’t think about it too much. I need to be rational, its just how exactly do they know which bits are theirs and which bits are mine. I read the contract, I have been walked through the procedure but I remain less than convinced. I am nervous about it.

There have been law suits, of course, where it has gone wrong. And last weekend I went to see Irene’s husband and well-his did go horribly wrong. For him at least-well kind of, although Irene is happy. Irene is very happy. She wishes he’d had it done sooner. He is very happy in one sense, it’s just that he can no longer string two sentences together. Irene says she likes it that way. Actually she loves it that way. I mean I’m sure it was a happy marriage before that, but now she is positively enjoying a renaissance in life and he is-well he is enjoying something. Mostly ice-cream it seems. And lollipops and candy floss. He gives her no trouble, does what he’s told, doesn’t speak out of turn. Before he used to talk over the top of her a lot and it annoyed her. Now she tells him when to speak and she says it’s much better. I mean I think it is much better-for her. Mostly when I am there, he just sits at the table with a ridiculous smile on his face.

The corporation meanwhile has all his knowledge, even the basic stuff. I guess some robot has made excellent use of it and the sacrifice for the good of society was probably worth it. Irene has to dress him but she doesn’t seem to mind, although I do think the line she has been doing in clown outfits recently is a little cheap and mean. He has a carer who seems equally unfazed by the changes.  The corporation pays for it all. I understand the drooling was bad at first but they have managed to fix that. He had it done quite a while ago and the procedure is much improved. It’s now a very small percentage that go awry. So it’s unlikely I’ll end up like that.

It’s not like there is much choice, I have to retire. And the knowledge is theirs. It belongs to them. They have ‘facilitated the means by which I acquired it’ and they therefore own it. I am not exactly sure what form their facilitation has taken. A rather ordinary desk with some clunky IT and a wobbly chair-I am not sure I would call that ‘facilitation’. I have had to fix the chair myself several times.   Robots don’t need chairs, they come with an ‘inbuilt stabilisation device’- basically they can hold themselves steady whilst giving the appearance of being seated-or something. There is no legal argument on the point of ownership of knowledge anymore. I am the hardware, the knowledge is the software is the easiest way to think of it. They can’t take anything extra though. There are bits of my brain that are mine. I must still be coherent and able to spell and read and write.

I know a lot of retired people who’ve had it done. They are all ridiculously happy because the ‘burden of knowledge’ has been removed from them. Not happy like Irene’s husband but they have a certain lightness to their being, their existence. They remember almost nothing of working. Life is all play. They remember their childhood, maybe some university years and not much else. It’s like they spent their 30’s and 40’s drunk and have just woken up from the night before, only there is no hangover. No slightly altered surreal questions about what they did last night. Just the lightness of no knowledge whatsoever of what work is like. It’s like their work was just purposeless. Although I am sure there was a purpose. When I talk to them they seem like the shell of the person they were, albeit happy little shells.

I am not sure I want to be ridiculously bubbly all the time. It won’t suit me. Plus I certainly don’t want the smile lines from all that relentless enthusiasm. They talk about nonsense, have no interest beyond the garden and their gym class. Some of them live in ‘colonies’ where they all get on ridiculously well. I have been to one and I just can’t see myself fitting in. They were all so nice. Plus they all wore pastels. No strong colours here. I wore black for a week afterwards just to recover from it. All that ‘Hello, how are you?’ rubbish as if I am genuinely interested. Perhaps I have spent too much time around robots. robots are relatively emotionless and disengaged but able to sustain an intellectual conversation. They have no interest in my clothes and couldn’t give a rats-arse about my happiness. I love them. I love them just for that alone.

None of these people follow the news anymore, they don’t care about the future. I can’t help thinking that when they take all that corporate knowledge, when they suck out the memories of working here, I won’t know who I am but worse I won’t know that I won’t know who I am. I have seen it done and I don’t want it. There is a desk at the end of the office just in case I decide today is the day. Me and the other human here, we haven’t discussed it. I wonder which of us will go first. Whether one will do it and the other will follow. I have had an estimation of the time it will take done. It will take 4 hours to extract all my knowledge. The email said that was very good and indicates I am very clever but also that I have a lot of corporate knowledge which I am hanging on to. I think they meant that in a bad way, as if I should share. They will do a very thorough job of clearing my brain. They say it helps if you focus on your work while you are having it done-this leads them to the right pathways but I am not sure that is true. That might be urban myth.

I look at the machines around me, the office I have worked in for 10 years, I won’t miss this place. I won’t even miss it as I leave it because all the knowledge I have about it will be gone. It includes things like the second toilet in the ladies doesn’t flush and it has been two years and it is not fixed yet, that is because cyborgs don’t need toilets either. That is useless knowledge but not knowledge that I own.

I look at that desk, at those electrodes just waiting everyday. I am just not ready. I tried on a pastel cardigan last weekend and it just didn’t suit. I looked at the garden which no one has touched in years, I couldn’t care less about it. I attend pilates once a year and that’s it. I am very serious all the time and I am not yet ready to be something else. What am I without my work?

But I signed a contract, they passed a law, the knowledge is theirs. The work will still get done. My corporate knowledge will still be doing it, just without me attached to it. Is that so bad. I look at that desk, at the end, at those electrodes, not today. I won’t do it today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.

I look in the mirror-it is not me

We can never tell each other how much we know. It’s a pact between all commuters everywhere…read more

I look in the mirror. Its me. I close my eyes. I reach out my hand. I find the button-a groove in the smooth surface. I should have bought one that was voice activated or at least changed the setting using my phone before I came to look in this mirror. I gently push the button in.

I open one eye. There I am, my image reflected back at me in the mirror. Except its not me. It looks mostly like me, but it’s a better version of me. Its an avatar. I have it on all my mirrors, a filter, so I never see what I really look like.

Except the button on this mirror doesn’t seem to be working. It won’t stay on my image, it constantly reverts back over night and when I come in here in the morning, there I am. Really me, what I must really look like. I close my eyes tightly whenever this happens and switch to the virtual me. The me with filters and ‘adjustments’, the me that I am sure is really me because that other me-I don’t want to look like that.

This can’t be healthy. I put make up on the virtual me, well I put it on the actual me, but in the mirror it goes on the virtual me. It looks a bit rough, I hit another button and the whole image is smoothed over and the makeup on the image in the mirror is perfect. I have no idea what it looks like on the actual me. I don’t care. I head for the train station. Its still dark. I walk and no one can see.

No one notices if my makeup is badly applied. No one notices me at all. That is how commuting works, same people everyday. Same seat. Same bags. Same coat. New coat. She has a new coat. And no one notices anything at all ever. I know these people, their habits, their smell, their conversations on phones. I know there lives but not their names-sometimes their names but only accidentally because I overheard. They probably know me too, but we can’t let on. We can never tell each other how much we know. It’s a pact between all commuters everywhere. A tacit agreement that even though we know everything we will pretend to know nothing. Except she has a new coat. I look down. That is not my business. It is not relevant to my life. I can not notice that.

I don’t look up. I just look at my phone. I put it on mirror. It just has an image of me. Always, Never actually me. Well yes me, but me with filters.  My makeup is perfect in that image, my ears are smaller, my mouth more rounded. I tell myself I look like that and there is nothing to contradict me. Nothing at all.

I go to get my coffee. I am wearing a scarf. I look at the ground. I don’t want to be noticed.  I have a takeaway coffee. They know my order, I send it by phone, I don’t even need to make eye contact. I have paid for it by phone. I just swipe my phone at the collection station and its released to me. I don’t have to see anybody. More importantly nobody sees me.

I get to work. I go past the kitchen. There is someone in there so I avoid it. I go to my cubicle. I take the lid off my coffee cup and sip it. Sweet, bitter delicious coffee. I switch on the machine, really can they not set it up so that I can do this from my phone before I arrive. It hums into life. I slip into lifelessness. I look at the Inbox, the news. I think about my first meeting. 9am slips by. I look at my phone, at the image on my phone. It is a good image. I have a meeting at 10am. I decide not to go in person but to send a virtual me.

I know that since I am in the office I should not do this. It is technically against the rules but I do this. The image of me, it is I think-better than the real me. The virtual me goes to the meeting. I see the meeting on my machine, I say things. I sound good. I look good. I huddle over my machine. Sooner or later they will ask why I am never there in person.

I finish my coffee at 11am. I always take ages to drink it.  I need the bathroom. I cannot go to the bathroom. The bathroom has mirrors. The mirrors in the bathroom are real. Real mirrors with real reflections and they cannot be changed to show your image, your avatar. It is really you. You cannot avoid seeing them. I need the bathroom though.

I grab my scarf. It looks odd. I know it looks odd, I pick a time, 11.21am. I am bursting now but 11.21 is not random, its too early for an 11am meeting to have finished and passed the time when anyone with an 11.15 will be going to a meeting late and too early for anyone going to an 11.30. I have this. I can get to the bathroom with my scarf and no one will see me. When I get to the door, I can wrap the scarf around my face and I won’t see it in the mirror-well maybe just the eyes-but the eyes are very close-aside from the colour. Did I mention that my avatar has different coloured eyes to me.

I look out from my cubicle, there is no one. I make a break for it. I see someone. I have misjudged it. 11.22 would have been better. I walk on by and pretend not to see her. I am here now before the toilet door. I wrap the scarf around my face and go in. I can only see my eyes. I focus on what I have to do. I focus on the taps when I am washing my hands. I do not make eye contact with myself. All the glimpses I get of me are accidental or peripheral. That person, she is not me. I am the image on my phone.

I look at the time, 11.27, just in time for the 11am meetings to finish and for early birds to the 11.30 to be on their way. I hide in the toilet cubicle. 11.30 passes. 11.35. 11.37. I will go  at 11.38. At 11.38 on the dot I fling open the toilet door and race for the exit. I nearly bump someone over in the rush. I mumble something to her. Sorry maybe or excuse me. I try to avoid panic, I can’t breathe. Is that panic or because the scarf has been covering my mouth for 20 minutes. I don’t know. I can see my cubicle. Head down, I march towards it. I see my chair. I reach out for it, grab it, slam myself down on it. I unwrap my face and bend over my desk. I have made it. No one saw me, at least not the real me. Next time I will send my avatar to the toilet.  It was not always like this. There was a time before this. Before there was a better perfect me, that existed as a picture when I am flesh and blood.

Would you take a Neon-man home?

But where would you take a neon man for dinner. You can’t take him to just anywhere-for one thing he probably needs a continual power source and also what if you go somewhere with bigger neon than he has. That would be embarrassing…read more

We hot-desk. I still sit at the same desk everyday. I get in early. I leave my heels there over night. I don’t care. At least I didn’t until recently. I can’t even remember when I first saw it. We aren’t that high up, the 9th or 10th floor and there are windows, well of course there are. Floor to ceiling and we look across at other buildings. Of course we do.

I don’t even know why I was looking out the window. It makes no sense. I can see several buildings from where I am, and this building is nothing special. Its no different to the others, except, well one day. On this one day, at least when it started, there was a neon outline of a man, taking up the whole window. On the inside not the outside. Its not a huge window, I mean its not small either. It’s a window, probably average for a window, I mean its floor to ceiling with a strip of something separating it from the window’s either side, but its not massively more wide and tall than the other windows. I’m talking too much. Overthinking it. It’s a window, you get it’s a window.

It was odd. I mean. I guess. I mean I thought it was odd. I stumble over my words a lot. People say that I do. I am truly sorry.  A neon outline of a man, a man  outlined in a neon sign. Just the outline and nothing else. Just there. In the window of the building. The window I was talking about. It was just there. I mean the man and of course the window. Sorry I’m not explaining it very well. It was yellow. The neon man, he was yellow.  Which isn’t really odd. I don’t know? Would it have been less odd if it was orange or green or blue? I tried to ignore it.

But it was there all day and my eyes were just, drawn to it. I vowed not to sit there again the next day. But I left my shoes there over night and when I went back the next day, the neon man was gone. Or at least I couldn’t see him. So I sat there again. It didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. I mean even now, it was my seat. Like I said, we hot-desk, but I sit there every day. Then around 11am, there it was again, the neon man, yellow, in the same window. I looked around me, no one else seemed to notice, everyone else seemed to be working. I didn’t want to disturb them. I kept sneaking a look at him, luminous. He made me smile. To think I knew he was there and no one else had noticed him.

It was distracting then so I tried to ignore it, to avoid it, to not see it. Then when I looked again, there was someone standing within the outline. A real man. That was weird I thought. Five minutes later and the man who had fitted into the outline was gone. I didn’t know what to do. Its not the kind of thing that warrants a phone call to the police, but it was odd. I mean don’t you think its odd. A neon outline of a man in the window if an office block. Then a man stands there in the outline and then-he is gone and there is just the neon left behind. Maybe you don’t think its odd. Maybe its me that’s odd. I can’t know either way can I.

It was gone the next day. Or at least not switched on. I couldn’t even pick the exact window with any certainty. I was busy all day Thursday and a little sad. What had happened? Where had he gone? But Friday, Friday, there he was again. I was so happy. I was buzzing. No one else seemed to notice him or to care. I wanted to say something but what? What do you think about that neon man you can see in the window over there? Maybe they’d think it was an odd question. Maybe they wouldn’t think about him. I did think about him.

Maybe they already think I’m odd. This would make them think I am more odd. I think ‘odd’ is an odd word. But it does what it says on the packet, even if you didn’t speak a word of English and someone said it to you, you would know what it meant. Its one of those words that’s all in the tone and the facial expression. You know what someone is saying when they use the word ‘odd’. The world is not full of those words, there aren’t many. It is a word I love but am desperately afraid of. I live in terror of the hint of an expression of it behind my back as I leave the office kitchen.

Where was I? Friday, yes, odd, yes, Friday. He was back. Neon man in all his yellow luminescence. I wanted to talk about him. I would have talked about him, but no one met my eyes all day. I stood in a world of my own on the way home on the tube. I should give him a name. He should have a name-my first thought was Leon, but no I didn’t want a name that rhymed, that always lacks dignity. But a bit of alliteration is ok, I settled on Norman-Norman Neon. It had a ring to it. It flowed. You could introduce yourself using that name at a dinner party and everyone would know you were in sales, probably electrical goods or medical supplies. Smooth talking Norman Neon. I liked him. Underneath the impeccable natty suit were tubes of light gold, he was well dressed, he talked a lot but he only truly lit up when I was in the room.

 Then I thought, Norman and I, we should have dinner. But where would you take a neon man for dinner. You can’t take him to just anywhere-for one thing he probably needs a continual power source and also what if you go somewhere with bigger neon than he has. That would be embarrassing. You need somewhere quiet and atmospheric although not too dark because you can’t have him lighting up the room for everyone else. He would be great in a club, kind of like your own personal strobe but more low key, perhaps we could just skip dinner. I wonder if you put neon on your sofa if it scorches it?

I missed my tube stop thinking about Norman. I had to remind myself that he wasn’t real. The thing is I kind of liked him. I liked him a lot. I could hear myself laughing with him as we walked home to my flat, laughing because Norman was better at killing insects than any man I ever met. He could zap a fly with any part of his tubular body. I could see myself chatting to him getting a kind of low level buzzing in response. He has a kind of gruffness to that buzz that could keep me awake at night. I could see him sitting on my couch. Bright yellow, lighting up the room. I would never need to change a bulb again.

I thought about him all weekend. It was ‘odd’ –that word again. By Monday I was desperate. When I first got to work he wasn’t there and I was crushed. But then there he was again at 11am, yellow and luminous and brightening my day. Filling my dreams with walks in the park and I don’t know –just the idea of having your own personal light source. By Tuesday I was in love. Norman and I were –well it was destiny. But Wednesday-Wednesday-I will never forget Wednesday. He wasn’t there on Wednesday, like the lover that ghosted you. He was just gone. I was heart broken. I couldn’t concentrate. Where was Norman?

I went home. Sat on the sofa, drank hot chocolate, watched TV and well I cried. Thursday. Thursday. There was no one I could talk to. No one I could tell. I just had to act as if nothing had happened. But Norman, Norman was gone. There was still no Norman. He was gone and I had to face it, maybe forever.

It was Friday that I resolved to find out. To go there. Directions are not my thing but I figured out the building and where I thought it should be and off I went. And. Well. Love is weird. I could see the building. I had come slightly the wrong way and ended up at the back of it and not the front and there was a skip. I. You understand. It was destiny. There he was. In the skip. Abandoned. A strange outline of a man. All neon. Tubes of light, dulled by lack of electrical current. So. I. I took him. I tried to ask. There was no one around. I just. I took him. I didn’t go back to work. I got on the tube and took him home. I called in sick for the afternoon, said I had fallen and hurt my ankle. I plugged him in. I lit him up. It was an amazing moment. There we were for the first time, me human and him neon. It was a beautiful moment.

And now, now we are together. And everything is fine. I plug him in. He lights up the room and it is how its meant to be. We watch TV.  And everything is fine. I have searched the internet, there is no one like me. I get that. I am ‘odd’ truly ‘odd’. It is a good word. I savour it when I look in the mirror sometimes. I smile slightly at the faint glance as I leave the office kitchen, the one that says they are about to use that word. Sometimes at work- I talk about Norman as if he a human. When they ask me for a picture, I show them a picture of my neon man. No one ever knows what to say. I look at them –all flustered-reddening. Trying to think of the words, how to say, that isn’t a, he isn’t, you can’t, its not. All those sentences they can’t say. Odd, how they stumble over all those words. And Norman and I –we are happy.   

The Supplement

I tell the machine what I am thinking. I think for it. I am it. It is me. I don’t know who is in control. It’s all so fast and yet the shift seems to go on forever…read more

I look in the mirror. Mostly at my hair. My scalp.  At the bald patches. The ones that look red and slightly burned. If I was good enough, better,  I could move on.  They always promise you can move on, but who ever moved on. No one I knew, not ever. No one was ever better or good enough. I think they might be lying.  Most of them-us- move on, but only to the burns unit not anywhere else, or their minds suddenly fail. They get slack jaw. They start drooling. Their body stops responding to their commands. They get carried out.

I bounce on the balls of my feet. Tell my legs they must keep working. I look carefully in the mirror for signs that my mouth might be drooping. Does it look lopsided, more lopsided than yesterday. They keep saying it’s getting better, they are learning to manage the heat being generated, it is not as bad as it use to be. It’s not like before- when they had to make incisions into people’s skulls and put the electrodes on the actual brain. There were infections. It was unhygienic. People died at their desks back then. Infection spread from person to person. They don’t do that anymore. Now there are just burns and burn out.

They hook up the wires -electrodes-to our scalps. They have to have good skin contact, hence the bald patches. And they are truly bald patches. I have no hair follicle left there. It is all gone. It was not an entirely pain free procedure. I will look like this forever. If people move on how come I have never seen someone out there who has bald patches? Maybe they can replace it. After all look at everything else ‘they’ can do.

They tell us it is noble work, for the good of humanity. That humanity is being improved, the lives of human beings being improved by what we do. They are not specific though. How exactly does what I do, do that? There are never any clear answers

I am a supplement. That’s what they call it. The computer needs some of my neurons, my electrons. There are things it can do but there are also questions it can’t answer and to answer those questions the quickest and most efficient thing to do is to plug in a human brain. There are offices full of them – us-we-supplements- everywhere. You can always tell a supplement by the hair cut and the bits where they put the electrodes – the hair around it is often slightly singed. There’s also the slightly difficult position in which they-we-us-I- hold my head. For most of the day when I am ‘hooked up’ my head is held in a cradle so my neck muscles have slackened. It is not an attractive look, but there is still a fetish website. Some people like them-us-supplements- nearly completely gone, just before our minds actually give up.

The truth is, well you know what the truth is. It is not getting better. It is not going to get better. I don’t even know what the machine that I am being plugged into does. I can think through the questions it asks me, make human value judgements for it but I cannot, in the time frame that I have, understand what it does. The decisions have no context. Sometimes it is like it’s feeding off me. It is sucking all of the ‘me’ out of me. It works so much faster than I do. It calculates, pulls together data, calculates even more, and I answer the more difficult questions. Mostly I can’t even remember what they are. There is no camaraderie, no atmosphere, we are all afraid. We cannot talk to each other. We are like a hive of collective thinkers. We are like ants or bees or something. All our energy for the day goes into the machine, into the analysis for which we exist. I am sure though, bees and ants must chat, must like each other. We don’t even know each other.

I remember all the empty promises. In the future, you will be able to upgrade your mind, you will be able to function at a higher level. That is not what happened. I remember it is not meant to be this way, the machines are going to supplement the humans and not the other way around. It did not happen that way. The machines got better, but they reached a limit. And then with the flick of a switch we were supplementing them and not the other way around. Our neurons increasing their capacity and not vice versa. I was alive for it and I don’t even know how it happened.

What’s it really like, I will tell you. I get up and I put ice –if I can get ice- on the bald patches. The theory being that if I can cool them first they won’t get so hot. It is just a theory. It jolts me first thing. Wakes me up, gets my brain working. Then I have a caffeine fix, usually via an injection. I am entitled to caffeine although its monitored because they want my brain to be stimulated but only to a certain point. I have regular tests for caffeine and lots of other chemical levels whilst working. They want to keep my brain at maximum capacity for the 10 hour shift. They will top me up intravenously if they need to.

I work out because I will be sitting all day. All day. They care nothing for my physical health unless it affects my mental health. They can and sometimes do ‘inject’ me with a ‘workout’. It lets my brain get all the benefits of a workout without actually doing the workout. It’s another trick they have. I like to occasionally do the workout.

I go to work. In theory I am supposed to put the drip that will feed me into my arm. I am supposed to willingly put my head in the cradle. That is not quite how it works. No one is willing. It is all very ‘assisted.’ The electrodes that I plug into seem to have a mind of their own. I watch them every morning snake out from the console towards me. I want to stop them, to move my head, to turn and run. But the cradle that is holding my head- is actually holding my head. Someone roughly or gently depending on their mood will have hooked me up to the intravenous drip that will feed me. No one will toilet me or its unlikely they will and by the end of the day the smell will make me want to be ill. At least it did at first, now I am used to it and I simply go and shower at the end and wash all the shit and pee away.

I sit there for 10 hours and I answer the questions I am asked. I supplement the machine and all the time it is getting hotter and hotter. I can hear the fan whirring trying to keep everything cool but it doesn’t work. It never works. I can feel my skin starting to redden. My face is red. If I could see my arms they would be red. But my head is held in one position all day and I can only look at the dead screen ahead of me. There is nothing on that screen, all day, everyday. There is nothing there. I just stare. And something else uses my brain, fires questions at me. I have to answer them. Quickly. I never feel like I am in control. I don’t know if I am willingly answering the questions or being forced to use my brain to answer them. I am physically trapped but I don’t know if my brain belongs to me or not. It is no wonder our minds go.

It starts to feel like my blood is boiling about half way through. I will be sweating. I will have wet myself. I will still be working despite the physical discomfort. I have not got the time to be thinking about the physical discomfort. I supplement the machine. It does not supplement me. I don’t know if I am doing it myself or it the thoughts are just being taken from me. I don’t know if I am in control. I am imprisoned physically but I don’t know who owns my mind in that time. I can’t think about it at the time. It is only afterwards that I know what has really happened. All the time, hour after hour. Neurons firing, electrodes prompting. I don’t know if I am in control. I don’t know whether it is controlling me or if I am being controlled. Hour after hour. I will become so hot. My skin will itch but I won’t notice it. The stench is probably overwhelming but still I take decisions. I tell the machine what I am thinking. I think for it. I am it. It is me. I don’t know who is in control. It’s all so fast and yet the shift seems to go on forever.

I will do this for hour on hour. I will smell my hair becoming singed. Sometimes you can hear someone groaning but mostly we are quiet and still. No one ever finishes a shift at the same time, that way we can never talk. At the end I will struggle to stand. My body will be in a kind of torpor from 10 hours of just sitting. I will have had all my nutritional needs met intravenously but I will still be hungry. My trousers will be filthy. I will wash them in the shower and dry them overnight and wear them tomorrow again. There is no point in doing anything else. I don’t know if my mind is mine. I can’t even be sure I am real.

They tell us that when we are good enough, fast enough, when we have helped the machines to understand the human mind, when that has happened, we can move on, all of us can move on. Sometimes my burned hair falls out of my head. Where are we moving on to? I examine my mouth, perhaps it is beginning to droop. Perhaps that is just the sadness. I know, I am plugged into the machine, that giant organical, mechanical hive, I know. I know. There is no moving on. I don’t know. I won’t ever know. That is probably the truth.



The Staff Event

The Staff Event

Our characters:

Janice: Human, Operations supervisor

Ryan: Human, Administration supervisor

RB1: Machine, personal assistant to Janice, accompanies her everywhere in the workplace

RB2: Machine, a specialist event planning robot

RB3: Machine, CEO-Bot

RB4: Machine, a strategy robot, M5 model.

RB5: Machine, a specialist HR robot

RB6: Machine, administration robot and pre 2020 activist

The robots look as human or as little like a human as you are comfortable with, although each has a monitor of some kind.

The Planning Phase

Every staff event has a planning phase and generally the people involved in this are really enthusiastic. I am not one of these people. Janice is not one of these people. Like all staff events, some people are ‘volunteered’ and the enthusiasm comes later (I have been told). You cannot organise a staff event, even one predominantly attended by machines without some human input (although I have been to several where I have doubted the human inspiration or even just the general humanity of them).

Janice enters the room. It is a small meeting room with a table and a chair. Robots tend to stand. They are designed to stand rather than sit. Janise sits down. RB1 (her assistant) follows her in. RB2 (event planning robot) is already in attendance. Janice smiles at RB2.

Janice: My apologies for being late.

RB1: My apologies too, it was her fault.

The monitor on RB1 turns to face Janice. Eyes that are glaring come up on the screen.

Janice: Thank you RB1.

RB2: You are one minute and 17 seconds over time, Janice. We have had conversations before about the need for promptness and efficiency. You were previously late on the 24 and the 16th. In total your lateness has cost us 7 minutes of talking time and event planning.

Janice: Thank you RB2, again, my apologies.

RB1: My apologies again, too. It was her fault.

Janice sighs.

Janice: Shall we get on with it then. I’ve looked at the agenda and I think we need longer than 10 minutes for lunch.

RB2: 10 minutes is exactly how long we take to recharge.

Janice: I know, but actually we still have at least two slow chargers here in the team and 10 minutes is not enough time for we humans to eat our food. Plus it is meant to be a networking opportunity, a chance for us to meet and mingle and chat. Get to know each other.

RB2: We are having the slow charges upgraded, specifically for the staff event.

Janice raises her eyebrows. She would have thought that cost too much. RB2 continues.

RB2: We have no need to ‘get to know’ you. I know what you had for breakfast this morning. I know how many times you went to the bathroom yesterday. I know all the things I need to know about you.

Janice nods. That is probably true. Robots have access to a lot of data about the humans they work with. This is a measure of co-operation introduced to appease robot activists as humans have access to the full technical spec of any robot they work with.

RB1: That is only two of Janice’s three points, you must answer the third.

Janice: Thank you RB1. There is still the point about needing time to eat the food.

RB2 points their monitor at the floor.

RB2: There is that point. (There is a pause) I didn’t want to mention it. It’s not polite, but- your BMI.

Janice: My BMI.

RB2 : Not just yours, everyones-it’s all a bit high. We are cutting down your eating time and (there is a long pause here), the food will be vegan (sounding more robotic than ever here as robots tend to do when they are nervous.)

Janice: VEGAN (incredulous)

RB2: Yes, well if your collective BMI’s get much higher the insurance premiums will go up.

Janice knows there is no point in arguing. This is how the new workplace works.

At the staff event: The First session

Janice is sitting at a table. There is one human per table. There are 7 tables. All other participants at each table are robots.

The Opening remarks:

RB 3 (CEO-Bot): Please note if you are human, there are toilets outside and down the road.

Janice mouths across to RB2: You booked a venue with no toilets?

RB2 flashes up on her monitor: BMI

Janice makes a signal with her hand, opening it and then closing it like a fist, indicating frustration. The robots do not notice. What does lack of toilets have to do with her BMI? She will request an explanation another time.

RB3: If there’s a fire alarm, all robots are expected to turn on their sprinkler systems. Humans have a  bag of water under their chairs to protect themselves.

Again Janice raises her eyebrows and mouths at RB2 who is not paying any attention.

RB3: You will see there is one human on every table. It’s a while since we had a staff away day because as majority robots we are scrupulously efficient and this kind of thing-well-isn’t. Nonetheless staff away days are on trend again so here we are.  You should all have the agenda in your databases. If you are a human, please ask a robot if and only if you have a real need to see the agenda.

Janice tries to make eye contact with the other humans in the room, at least two raise their eyebrows back at her.

The first session

The first session, like every staff event you have ever been to, is on moving forward, the strategic review, the five year plan.

RB3: You have one hour to discuss the way forward for the next five years.

Janice turns and looks around the table.

Janice: Do we all know each other, are introductions necessary?

RB1: I sent everyone each other’s technical specs this morning and all your personal information was distributed yesterday. I have just updated them on what you had for breakfast, how long you were in the shower and your next expected toilet break based on your food and liquid intake over the past 72 hours.

Janice: Thank you RB1.

She clears her throat.

Janice: Shall we think about our goals for the next 5 years.

RB4 (strategy robot): Here they are. I’ve printed them out.

Janice: Oh thank you.

She picks up the paper.

Janice: These are our goals?

RB4:  They are. If you had a human staff away day you would be discussing these.

Janice: I see one is crossed out?

RB4: That is because if you had a fully human away day that point would be on there but in 6 months time, you would have removed it. I have simply done it for you and documented it-and the reasons for it.

Janice: And who are you again?

RB4 looks at her, a pair of glaring eyes appear on the monitor.

RB4: M5, Strategy, planning and corporate development, for a 360, 5 year plan for going forward. Jargon getting you down, not able to keep up with the latest buzzwords, tired of forward planning, let the M5 do it for you.  A robot that can do your strategic planning for you, a robot that can take account of all the predictive information you can find,(the voice is getting louder now) Internal! External!  A robot who can analyse it in under two minutes! And present your corporate plan in your corporate colours in total corporate speak so you don’t have to. (then more quietly) Haven’t you read my technical specification?

It is expected Janice would have perused the technical data of all the robots on her table.

Janice smiles: Of course I have. (she says this cheerfully-robots are not wonderful at picking up the nuances of humans).

RB4 replaces the glaring eyes with a smiling emoji.

Janice:  We should discuss the plan.

RB4: No need! These are the conclusions you would reach.

She is sitting there with her mouth open. All the other robots have nodding emojis on their monitors

RB4: I can do the 5 years after that too.

Janice: No, no need for the next five years after this one, I guess the only question is what next for 50 minutes.

All the robots look at each other.

One says quietly: Cluedo?

All the robots together: Cluedo

Janice:  Cluedo (quietly).

RB5 (HR robot): (loudly) Can we play the one where the weapons have been replaced with robots. M4 in the server room, bumps off Mr Peacock.

RB1: I don’t think so. That is not appropriate when there is a human at the table

Janice: (quietly) Who is that robot again? RB1: HR, but it’s currently in performance management mode and not recruitment mode.

Janice nods. She notices a lap top sitting on the table across from her.

Janice: What is that doing here. Isn’t it a lap top, a pre 2020 laptop.

RB6: Do you know that? Are you connected to it. Rights for pre 2020 machines.

RB1: She’s a member of a group sorry should have warned you.

Janice nods. They play Cluedo (the version where the humans are killing other humans and not the robots killing the humans).

The lunch room

Humans at one end, looking aghast as they try and down the vegan food as quickly as possible.  Robots at the other, plugged in.

The end of the day

After an uneventful second session where cross team working was discussed and dismissed as merely requiring some rewiring of infrastructure, the day finishes. Janice and the other humans are off to the pub. The robots will return to work. Janice meets her friend Ryan at the door.

Janice: What was your table like? Mine was horrendous.

Ryan nods, not quite ready to speak yet.

Janice: We played Cluedo, you –

Ryan: Monopoly, the one where there are no hotels or houses because robots don’t need them, the stations were replaced by server rooms. There were a lot of extra jail stops but they were human only and the tax was human only too. Of course I was also the only one that got paid-human only too. They seemed to enjoy it.

Janice: We played the old version of Cluedo, thank goodness, the HR-bot seemed a little enthusiastic about the robot kills human in server room version.

Ryan: Performance management mode?

Janice nods.

Janice: Remember when we had full on staff events, humans only. Everyone came, we planned and participated. We did a proper review of the strategic review. We had meat in the sandwiches. There was sugar and milk and full strength coffee.

Ryan: Yeh, I remember that.

Janice: This was still better than that.

Ryan nods.

Ryan: Hell yes.

They head for the pub.