The things you’ll do for love

The things you’ll do for love

 

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CJ cradled the glass of cold beer and surveyed the bar. It was his favourite place to unwind, hidden in a side street in the Old Town of Geneva.

As he took a swig he reflected on another working week spent in crowded trains, to and from business meetings in Suisse Romande, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. 

Swiss Trains arrived punctually and generally left on time, but the second class carriages, although clean, had hard seats, designed to be long wearing rather than comfortable.

CJ had tried to get his boss to pay for 1st class travel, but it was proving to be a long and fruitless battle, so when he was required to travel, he begrudgingly boarded the train and used the time to prepare for his meetings, laptop cradled on his knees.

Seats were hard to find in the early morning commute between Geneva and Lausanne, so most days he took another train in the opposite direction in order to catch his train at the airport in Cointrin thus avoiding the maelstrom of crowds at the Cornavin Main Station in town. Although he was far from being the only one to have the same idea, it was rare he couldn’t find a seat at the airport station although it added another half hour of travel time.

But it was Thursday night and the weekend was in sight. He scolded himself for taking his working week to the bar, drained the last dregs of his beer and motioned to the barman for another.

A flash of light caught his attention and he looked over to see three women seated at a table not far from the bar. 

One of them, an attractive blond, was laughing and waving her arms, attempting to say something over the noise of the club. As her torso danced, the lights of the dance floor caught her jewellery and sent fragments of light around the club. It was fascinating and he kept on looking, absorbing the details, the deep red of her lipstick, the curls of her hair tumbling over her shoulders, the bright purple of her blouse stretched tightly over her chest.

One glance too many, their eyes met, and she locked onto his regard.  Embarrassed, he smiled, but she shunned his attention and turned away.

Oh well, he thought, I’ll just finish this one and go home. He glanced at his watch, the club was going to close anyway and he had a meeting in Fribourg the next day at ten. He cringed at the thought of another early, crowded train.

As he got up to go he heard shouts from behind. Two guys were trying to leave with the blond he had noticed earlier, they were dragging her to the exit. The other girls were protesting and attempting to pull her back to the table. The house music drowned out the heated conversation but the few words he could hear were definitely not French. Things looked to be getting out of hand.

Then one of the men slapped the blond woman on both cheeks gripping her wrists together. 

He sprung into action, and in full knight in shining armour mode, he prised her wrists from the man’s fists and stepped in between them. He really should have thought before acting so rashly, and ignored the rush of adrenaline.

And then it was all over.

The other guy’s fist met his right cheek with a crack that exploded deep within his jawbone. He reeled backwards, lost his footing, and fell heavily to the floor.

He turned on his side to get up, but a sharp kick to his gut from a heavy boot expelled the liquid contents of his stomach and he doubled up in pain, only just catching sight of the women running towards the exit followed closely by his two assailants. 

A crowd of people towered over him and someone helped him onto his feet. He was a mess and hobbled over to the men’s room with the intention of cleaning himself up as much as possible.

Someone asked him if they should call the police, but he shrugged off the suggestion and told them he was just going home.

And that’s all he remembered, before waking up the next morning, head exploding, fully dressed and covered in stale vomit and sticky blood.

He had no memory of how he got home. 

He stripped off and stepped into a hot shower.

After dressing he made a strong black coffee, only feeling marginally better.

He checked his reflection in the mirror on his way out, his face looked as bad as he felt. He’d get some painkillers from the pharmacy at the station, he thought.

He climbed onto the train at Cointrin Airport, holding onto his sore belly to protect it and settled into a front facing window seat.

Looking at the clock on the platform he saw that there were just two minutes before the train was due to leave.

He caught a flash of purple and saw a woman running to catch the train. Her right cheek was bruised. Her long blond hair cascaded down over her shoulders and bounced as she ran.

It was the woman from last night.

The guard’s whistle blew and the train eased its way out of the station.

The carriage doors opened automatically with a whoosh and the woman walked slowly and deliberately along the aisle and then sat down opposite him.

“Does it hurt?” she asked, with an unmistakable Eastern European accent. 

 

    

 

 

   

Sunday Photo Fiction : Seasons

Seasons

 

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© A Mixed Bag, 2015

 

Autumn came early that year, but Steven didn’t notice.

He didn’t see the leaves change colour, or feel the slight chill as the sun set and evening descended.

He didn’t have time for the seasons, running from one meeting to the next, waking each day in a different city, in hotels that differed only by the colour of their bedspreads or the paintings on the walls.

Winter came and went, but he never felt the cold. The air-conditioned interiors of his hotel room kept winter on the outside, and while the blizzard raged, he drank vintage wine and ate fine seafood at his table for one, before going back to his room to prepare for the next day’s meetings.

Then one evening, as he lay on his bed, he felt his chest tighten, and a searing pain shot through his left arm. He managed to raise the alarm on his gold-plated mobile but had no memories of what happened next.

He woke up in a hospital bed and on his bedside table was a magnificent bouquet of daffodils and a card from the hotel that read, “Get well soon.”

It must be Spring, he thought.

Well, I’m back from my trip to Switzerland and my entry to Sunday Photo Fiction is a day later than usual. It’s nice to settle back into my morning writing routine although while I was away I wrote every day, in hotel rooms, in the car and in crowded theatres. Managing to write just about anywhere is a personal victory.

 

 

Cruising and Me

Cruising and Me

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Cruising is not for everyone.

There is something adventurous about going on a cruise but I didn’t discover it until late in life.

I guess this makes me a typical cruise passenger, in the eyes of many.

What held me back from cruising was the thought of all those people confined in such a small place.

I don’t feel comfortable in a crowd. The only crowds I can cope with are those in concert halls and theatres, probably because when the lights go down, I’m alone with the artists. It’s a mild form of claustrophobia, although I’m comfortable in confined spaces and have never been troubled taking the elevator or driving through a tunnel.

It’s not even a phobia, more of a dislike. I can deal with it, but given the choice, I avoid adventuring into crowds if I can.

I love travelling.

Sometimes I think I get more enjoyment from the voyage than from the destination. There’s something about airports and train stations that brings out the adventurer in me. Waiting for an airplane or a train conjures up the possibilities of discovering unusual or exciting destinations or of embarking into the unknown.

I was having a great evening with friends a few years ago and after the meal and a few glasses of wine we took our places around the fire and continued our conversations.

Holidays and travel are always interesting topics and we were exchanging our latest experiences.

Our hosts had just come back from a cruise and I was surprised. They were young and had two teenage girls, not the typical cruise clients I thought. Over the course of the evening they managed to dispel most of my fears and apprehensions.  From what they said, cruising seemed more and more like an interesting proposition.

I wasn’t totally convinced, but it did spark my curiosity.

So on my next trip to Florida, my wife and I  booked a weekend cruise to the Bahamas, just for three nights.

Long enough to find out what it was all about but no too long if we  discovered that it just wasn’t for us.

Well the first surprise was the boarding experience because it held the same excitement as waiting for a plane or a train. We only had two destinations, Nassau and a private island but we were going to sail to them and I’d never been on a boat larger than a ferryboat before.

My inner adventurer had been sparked.

I must admit to being apprehensive and I wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of the vessel. There were hundreds of other passengers who were waiting to board with us.

Boarding the boat provided sufficient distractions, and we got our key cards, had our photos taken and were ushered onto the boat.

The boat itself was the biggest surprise, because once on board, I totally forgot I was actually on a boat, until I was reminded later outside on the deck.

The corridors are vast and endless, the restaurants are immense, and in the theatre, watching a show, you could be in any theatre, anywhere in the world.

The sheer size of the vessel dilutes the hundreds of passengers, each doing their own thing, I found you could always find a quiet corner to relax in.

My biggest fears had been quashed.

But when the boat left port, and navigated on the open sea, I had my greatest surprise.

It’s a feeling that only a large seagoing  vessel can provide.

The movement of the ship in the water and the vibrations and rocking motions of a ship at sea were unlike any sensation I’d experienced travelling on land.

And late on that very first evening, after an excellent meal and a good show, I took the lift to my cabin and retired for the night.

The sea was calm, and I drifted off to sleep rocked by the gentle caring movements of the ship as it glided toward our next destination.

So even after that very first night at sea, I knew that while cruising might not be for everyone, it definitely was for me.

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The Robot Revolution

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The Robot Revolution

The robot revolution was insidious.

Everybody saw it coming but viewed it as an opportunity and not as a threat.

Factory floors that once bustled with workers, whirred silently whilst the chosen few surveyed the machines.

Then machines, for that was what they were in those days, became more and more sophisticated and rather than just automating processes, they slowly but surely started taking care of themselves, making little corrections here and there, to ensure that they ran efficiently.

Then, gradually, they were the ones that called the shots, letting the operators know when it was time to maintain and repair.

It started with polite skeuomorphic reminders, but over time, machine operators gradually became slaves to their own machines.

But to automate any process, some sort of method was required, even for the simplest of tasks.

It became the hidden face, the driving force, of the robot revolution.

To make a cup of tea, for example, you need more than the raw materials, you require a method and a sequence of tasks in order to succeed.

You might debate whether to put the milk in the cup before or after pouring the tea, but if you don’t add the teabag or neglect to boil the water, the end result will be disastrous.

And so the algorithm was born, without which machines remained machines and could only accomplish what they were built to manufacture.

Once machines had been fitted with microchips and integrated circuits they controlled themselves, while operators just surveyed the results.

Then even those processes were surveyed by yet more automated processes, each one driven by the algorithms they had been imbued with.

This led to a silent, unspoken, back door revolution.

Algorithms became so sophisticated that they became capable of autocorrection.

The seeds of Machine Learning had been sown.

Over a few decades, the future, once bright and multicoloured, turned into different shades of grey.

We gradually stopped smiling while machines were, of course, devoid and incapable of developing a sense of humour. The world became sadder somehow.

We struggled with unemployment and retrained for jobs the machines couldn’t do.

We went to university and chose those professions that machines had failed to contribute to.

But even so, there is a limit to the numbers of Doctors, Lawyers, Bankers and Accountants we needed.

Then the nightmare of machine led manufacturing became that of more or less any job you could hope to acquire.

The world of finance collapsed first. Machines were much faster than men at making financial transactions and took split second decisions that made each bank enormous amounts of money.

Then the legal system fell. Machines could consult and digest every law and ordinance, cross reference any preceding judgement, and arrive at fair sentences based on everything except human considerations.

Machines served the Health Service and then the Health Service served the machines. Machines analysed the tests and arrived at diagnostics while Robotic arms performed surgery, even at a distance.

And now I’m afraid we’ve arrived at a painful juncture.

The turning point of the robotic revolution.

Machines had wheels and arms but were faceless.

We gave them faces to imitate us and legs so they could be mobile.

That is when machines became the robots we had fantasised about in literature and folklore. In the space of less than half a century robots finally took over running the planet for us.

There wasn’t a task they couldn’t do.

They mastered even the most complicated of tasks.

Robots put the laundry in the washing machine, ironed it and put it back into the wardrobe.

Robots became nail technicians and hairdressers.

They cut the grass or sent their little baby robots to do it in their absence.

The only tasks left for man were providing interesting algorithms or doing what we do best, raising little robots and showing them how to survive.

For every child, we get a robot, and we nurture and teach our children how to learn and survive on this ever evolving planet.

Do you know what my little robot asked me today?

“Hey teacher, are there other robots somewhere in the universe?”

Of course when I answered, the whole robot population received my reply.

It’s impossible to have secrets anymore.

A Walk in the Woods

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A Walk in the Woods

John loved to walk in the woods just out of town. The canopy of trees shielded the harsh Summer sun and afforded shelter from the wind and snow in Winter. During his walks, he was able to steal some alone time, away from the office, family, and friends.

He parked his car at the entrance, sat on the tailgate and laced up his favourite hiking shoes. They weren’t really necessary here on the well-trodden paths but they were worn in and comfortable.

He locked the car, dropped the keys into his pocket and set off. The woods were shaped like a half moon so if he kept on going he would eventually return back to where he had set off from. No need for maps or a satnav.

It was just an uncomplicated affair between him and the trees.

The ground was parched and dusty, most unusual for this time of year. Summer had been hot and dry and it hadn’t rained for over three weeks. A few orange and brown leaves, scattered here and there,  crunched under his boots as he walked.

He sensed that the wood was just waiting for a brisk breeze and a little rain before letting go of its autumn costume.

It was mid-afternoon and he was alone.

He picked his way between sweet wrappers and crushed soft drink cans, cursing the incivility of the other users of the woods but the path was clearer the further he ventured from the car park, and after a few hundred yards, he only had to avoid stepping in dried dog poop and crushed desiccated branches, strewn along the footpath.

He came to the apex of the wood and paused a moment. Without reason, he turned to take the centre axis. The long wide path with streams to each side would eventually take him back to his car. He felt a change would do him good  and hoped there were other paths that he could discover on the way.

The woods were calm and the birds must have been taking an afternoon nap because there was a strange absence of sound. It was most peculiar.

Then without warning he felt the ground rumble beneath his feet and a clatter of hooves as a horse and rider appeared from nowhere, galloping down the centre aisle straight at him.

Flashes of films played in his head but there was no lance, no sword outstretched, no trumpeting of horns.

With no way of avoiding the collision, he watched helplessly as they raced towards him.

He remembered flying before the  pain coursed through his body. He even caught a glimpse of the horse and rider as they disappeared into the distance before he blacked out, but was unable to give an adequate description of his assailants, who were never apprehended.

It was a clear case of Woodland hit and run.

The Bench

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Meg and John took a walk along the beach most Sundays.

Sometimes they would sit for a while on a rickety bench and watch the waves being battered by the wind and the gulls swooping and swerving.

They’d had problems with their weight for decades. It wasn’t very romantic, but it brought them together in many ways.

Regular exercise was one way they’d found of maintaining the fragile victory over the kilos they’d lost through dieting over the past year or so.

It was easier some Sundays than others depending on the weather. On a bright sunny day they were drawn by the spotless blue sky and the birdsong, whereas when the wind howled, and rain fell almost horizontally, it was a lot harder to leave the comfort of their home and set across town to walk along the beach.

Those Sundays they stayed at home, keeping warm and dry.

They agreed that something must be done. Walking once a week was  the bare minimum required to maintain the kilos at bay.

John wanted to buy an exercise bike and put it in the spare room, whereas Meg thought it would be better to walk a little every day around the neighbourhood, rain or shine.

Finally, after weeks of discussion, they agreed on a compromise.

John bought the bike for use on bad weather days and they decided to walk for a few kilometres a day, five days a week, when the weather permitted.

John was fond of his routines, and it became just one more to adhere to. Meg had always been easy going, so it wasn’t a problem.

In the end, and quite by surprise, they each looked forward to their daily walks. Not for the scenery, or for the intake of fresh air, but rather the muscle tingling, slightly out of breath headiness that came from pushing themselves to walk faster and go further than the time before.

It worked well for them, and they were no longer afraid to eat the occasional cream doughnut, an extra helping of french fries, or drink a few glasses of fine wine from time to time.

I was glad that my parents were happy, and it was good to see them moving and active.

In the end, it was neither too much exercise nor too many cream doughnuts that killed them, but a car coming out of nowhere, speeding in a residential area. It came around the corner too fast and ran them down. Then it sped off without stopping.

The driver of the car is still unknown.

I’m still grieving.

Without some closure, it’s hard to overcome.

I need somewhere to shed a tear. A place to reflect and to remember, far from the cemetery and the cold grey tombstones.

A place to celebrate their lives. Somewhere to be closer to them.

So I come out here to the beach and place two bouquets, one on either side of the bench, and sit awhile.

Sometimes, when the sun shines at just the right angle, the sky seems to open a passage, bringing me nearer to them wherever they might be.

 

Almost the Northern Lights

Almost the Northern Lights

I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, but when my wife and I went on a transatlantic cruise last year, although we were due to visit three ports in Iceland, it was early September and far too early in the year for the right conditions.

We put those thoughts to the back of our minds for a future holiday.

There was something a little surreal in crossing the North Atlantic in a boat called the Caribbean Princess.

On leaving Southampton we sailed to Bergen in Norway and then on to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Finally, we arrived at our first port of call in Iceland, Akureyri. We had booked an excursion to see the puffins on a private island just an hour away from the port by boat.

When we got to the pretty island we discovered, however, that puffins can only be sighted in the mating season and that was several months ago. We were disappointed. The island is also has a reputation for providing down from the eider ducks and we visited the installation and saw how the islanders gathered the feathers from the Eider ducks and produced the down for bedding and clothing. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a duck in sight, just wisps of plumage, stuck to rocks here and there.  The only high point of the day were some delicious home-made cakes and pastries and a welcoming coffee. We were frustrated and disappointed.

On returning to the boat we complained and obtained a partial refund and a sympathetic ear.

Our ship then sailed North-West, crossing the Arctic Circle and heading for Akureyri. There’s something magic about being so far north. It transformed the holiday into an adventure. We all received a certificate to attest to our achievement and we can hang it with other certificates we have received in the past, like going through the Panama Canal and crossing the International Date Line.

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After an excellent dinner, we strolled along the deck to the theatre and watched another show before heading up to the buffet for a snack before retiring for the night. It’s a hard life cruising.

The Captain made an announcement over the ship’s speakers and said he had received a Northern Lights alert and that therefore there was a slight chance of seeing this magical phenomenon.

Excited, we headed to our cabin and, luckily, I had packed a tripod. I mounted my camera on the tripod and opened the sliding doors to our balcony. In my excitement, I’d forgotten that we were North of the Arctic Circle and I was met with a blast of icy air. It was blustery and very cold. I shut the sliding doors and wrapped up as warm as I could then headed back out with my camera and tripod. I wanted to photograph the sky, so I fumbled in the dark, using the light of my mobile phone to illuminate the dials and buttons of my camera to pick the best settings to catch the lights.

Once everything was as ready as I could make it I looked upwards to the arctic sky and waited. It was partially cloudy which was not a good sign but I persisted, shaking more from the cold than from the excitement of the moment.

I spent more than an hour in the freezing cold. Although my camera was secure on the tripod, the wind made the tripod tremble and we were, after all, on a moving ship. They weren’t the best of conditions to take good pictures of the Aura Borealis.

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I managed to take many blurry shots of stars and vague glimmers of green and blue in the arctic night, north of Iceland.

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It wasn’t a total disaster, taking into account the time of the year, and the conditions of the ship.

I call it an Aurora Borealis taster, and I look forward to future visits.

This time on dry land, and in the right season.

So that’s how I almost saw the Northern Lights.

This is the ninth in a series of travel tales :

  1. How I went to Brazil

2. Flight over Table Mountain

3. The Tracey Arm Surprise

4. The Lone Piper

5. My Vanuatu Swim

6. Breakdown in Peru

7. It Takes Two to Tango

8. The Bali Run

9. Almost the Northern Lights

10. I’ll Love You To the End of the World