George worked quietly for the next three hours, almost unaware of Tibha and her presence near by. Almost, but not entirely. He could smell her but instead of wasting his mind in trying to think of something memorable to say, for he rarely could, he concentrated on his first assignment. Christmas was easy to correct as it had been replaced by other re-writers long ago and had become the Mid Winter Festival held on the 21st December each year. That was the time for celebrating life, celebrating each other and celebrating the Incorporation of the old Western Empire and its transition from a so-called democratic, and widely corrupt, system of individual governments, to a properly run, efficient and profitable business, managed by professional businessmen.
At the academy graduates on all training programs had spent two years learning about democracy and its steady decline through avarice, greed and self interest. About how those who worked hard to support themselves and their families were forced to pay for those who chose not to. The Great Western Empire, a collection of all those countries with their made up names had been heading for a total collapse, just as the Roman Empire had fifteen hundred years before. The graduates had learned about how the greatest and most cultured Empire in history with its art, architecture, education, science, medicine, their understanding of the universe and their unique system of democracy, which had taken five hundred years to build, had been finally and brutally destroyed by a tribe of Barbarians.
They were people who had lived within Roman Society for centuries, although were given no meaningful part to play in it. Eventually, history recorded, the Roman Empire shattered when some of their own people, the underclass, attacked and destroyed their rulers. At the academy the students learned that all Empires ended in the same way and usually after around five hundred years. Exactly the same thing had happened to the Greeks, Egyptians, Ottomans, Mesopotamians, Aztecs and all the other great and civilised societies of the past. After the Roman culture had been destroyed most of the known world then lived through a period called the Dark Age, during which the largest part of the people lived in mud huts, caves and small shelters. They became hunters and gatherers again and not shopkeepers and traders as the Romans had been before them. The new ruling classes, on the other hand, lived in great castles with their men of violence.
However, the graduates were given this as an example of how history had been recorded by the winners and that these were among the first historic records that had to be re-written and made true again. Instead, the academies taught all of the students of the Corporation that the Roman Empire didn’t collapse at all. They cleverly morphed into the Roman Catholic Church and ruled from a new city called the Vatican, within Rome. From there they continued to exercise power over the people through the fear of the unknown rather than the fear of the centurion soldier. Somebody, somewhere in Rome, had wisely calculated it would be far more profitable to invent a Christian God and keep the underclass in control by using the terror of Hell instead of the cruelty of the sword. It was hard to know which was worse. And it worked too, for more than a thousand years. The Roman Catholic Church became far richer and more powerful than its predecessor, the Roman Empire, could ever have dreamt of. It was a business model to learn lessons from.
The Corporation, they were taught to believe, had been observing the decline of the Western Democracy for nearly sixty years. It began with the Age of Discovery and had dominated the world for around five hundred years. The natural lifespan of any Empire. The Corporation could clearly see the end was approaching and warned of the threat from barbarians living within their own societies. So they had taken the brave and wise decision to remove the failing governments, merge each economy and run the western world properly as a business. It meant the people didn’t have the chance to vote for their leaders anymore but, as Vincent Baptist had reminded them during the induction, ‘if voting actually changed anything then they wouldn’t have been allowed to do it.’ So nobody cared and welcomed the change. It was a change for the better, just as the news media had been repeatedly predicting during the years leading up to Incorporation. The corrupt governors had been withdrawn and the Main Board established a new regional department to run each division made up of the best and brightest minds of their generation.
George thought about Christmas and why this word had come up so often during his training. It was never used in modern times but it must have been important to many people for a very long time. He had mentioned it to Will once but he had never heard of the word. It simply wasn’t used at the Industrial Training Academy. George made a mental note to ask old Edgar about it one day. He would remember. Edgar would have celebrated Christmas when he was younger, a long time ago. George noticed the time on his hy-dev. It was hour thirteen and he was ready to investigate the dining rooms. Picking up his device, which automatically disconnected with the plasma screen, George glanced at Tibha and considered asking her to join him. But Tibha was busy correcting Wordsworth, by gazing far into the distance, and so he chose not to interrupt. He wasn’t sure how to ask anyway.
Walking through the hallways George looked around and marvelled at the high ceilings, ornate carvings and listened to the echo of his own footsteps and others as they casually made their way around the building. Some were wearing sports gear; others had already finished their contribution and were heading for the platform pod that would deliver them to the next speeding Hydrotrain – to somewhere or another. George found a dining room serving his favourite Raj Cuisine, sat at the window revealing miles and miles of gently rolling hills and rich farmland, selected his skyphone application and then tapped the option called ‘Mira.’
There was no reply and George left no message. Instead he searched his history archive for the word ‘Christmas’ and the only definition he could find was ‘an old, historic festival of the now discredited and abandoned Christian religion that had replaced the civilised and cultured Roman Empire around the fourth century, after it had been established by one of its own Emperors.’ And that was it. There was no other reference to Christmas apart from in the books of fiction he and the others were updating. In every case they were to replace the word with the Winter Festival. George felt proud to be part of setting the record straight. It was an honour for him to have been trained to make sure that all future generations would have an accurate record of history. One day the old, invented, religions and countries would have no part in that history at all. For many, like his friend Will, it already had no part. Grainger wouldn’t find a definition of Christmas on his hy-dev. The Corporation cleverly knew that he wouldn’t need one in his line of work.
George’s Raj Platter arrived and he picked at his food as he thought about what he had learned about the old system of democracy back at the academy. Leaders of the western world, they had been taught, were more interested in their own places in history and their own personal vanity. In England they preached about wind farms and sustainable energy whilst not mentioning the blanket power cuts that almost ruined their society five years later; or the Welfare State and immigration policy that finally did. In America the two political sides became so hostile and bitter towards each other that there was never any middle ground. There could be no meeting of the minds and each blocked the other’s attempt to get anything done for the good of the people they were chosen by to represent. In the countries they used to call France, Spain and Italy the apathy towards politics and politicians became so deep-seated that few people ever bothered to vote at all. Those who did simply selected ‘somebody else.’
It had become a common theme across the Western Empire towards the end of the old calendar. Come election time, those who troubled to vote at all just turned up, recognised who currently held office, and then chose one of the others, regardless of who they were or what they represented. Changing their spokesperson every two or four years ensured nothing sensible was ever achieved and economies ground to a halt as a result of political clumsiness. The Greeks were the worst. All the business in Greece was done in cash and so their governments were never able to collect taxes that would ensure the welfare society could be looked after properly.
It was also common practice among Greeks to continue claiming family living expenses for the long dead. It meant their government was always spending and never collecting. Their bankruptcy was the first signal to the Corporation that this practice was likely to spread throughout the West and eventually destroy it, before the barbarians could even draw their swords. The Corporation wisely knew that they needed a fifty, or even a one-hundred, year business model if the Western Empire was to survive. The days of the four or five year elected governments served no useful purpose at all in the modern world. It wasn’t long enough to achieve anything meaningful; and so none of them ever did.
The two powerful African economies, South Africa and Kenya had managed to engineer a one party state run by unimaginative gangsters and thieves who served only in their own interest and kept an otherwise thriving population, that was full of potential, uneducated and ignorant. This ensured their votes for generations. The time had come for proper businessmen to run these economies and to replace the rogue and self interested. So, by 2018 of the old calendar, the communities were easily persuaded. For years their chosen news feeds, the old newspapers and television programmes, had been subtly leading people in the direction of who they wanted them to vote for. It was easy. Compliment their chosen candidate and discredit or smear the others. Societies always voted in the way their news feeds directed them. It became inherent.
The Great Western Empire certainly had been heading the in the same direction as the Romans, Egyptians, Greeks and Ottomans and, it appeared, for exactly the same reasons. It was doomed to failure by the one major flaw in all societies. That was the notion of democracy. The simple fact was that democracy and capitalism did not mix. They could not work together and the side with the most money would always win the argument. Governments guided each other towards bankruptcy, as the bland might lead the bland. Meanwhile the rich grew richer and there would only be one outcome. As soon as big business had more cash reserves than their elected officials then revolution would be a formality. And bloodless too. George’s head began to hurt as he remembered all of this.
‘Ahh, the food of my ancestors,’ interrupted Tibha.
George shook off his thoughts and smiled warmly at her ‘You looked busy and I didn’t want to interrupt you,’ he said, ‘otherwise I would have asked you to come with.’
‘You look troubled George,’ what’s troubling you. Woman or work, it’s usually one or the other with you boys.’
George thought about Mira. ‘Both,’ he replied. ‘What do you know about democracy?’ he asked her.
‘Very little,’ she admitted. ‘The poets and the romantics rarely covered subjects like that and so there was no need for us to learn about it. Although there were a few. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem called Mask of Anarchy in protest of the Government of 1819 and he mentioned England a few times, but only because Shakespeare had called it that. The poem has an anti-government sentiment and is anti-democratic and so they taught us a little of why Shelley wrote it and why it was so popular at the time. But, apart from replacing the references to England with Albion we were told that everything else was pretty accurate. Shelley had been right and democracy was a bad thing, even as far back as then. It was the total power and financial control held by the very few over the so very many. And that was the whole point of Mask of Anarchy. So that’s all I really know about democracy, that it was a bad thing.’
’That reminds me,’ asked George, ‘earlier you mentioned replacing England and London with the proper word, Albion, right.’
‘It never occurred to me before you said that,’ George continued, ‘but have you ever wondered if England and London were the same thing, or were they different places?’
‘Perhaps they were,’ Tibha replied. ‘Don’t forget, these fiction writers, the novelists, invented quite a lot. And when you do that you need to have a good memory because otherwise some things become blurred, misunderstood and misremembered even. It’s a bit like lying to somebody. Liars need to have great memories. If you tell the truth, like we do today, then you don’t need such a reliable memory do you?’
George thought about Mira again. ‘Very true,’ he replied. ‘If you tell the truth then you don’t have to remember what you have told people because….’
‘You don’t forget the truth,’ interrupted Tibha. ‘I had a marriage contract with a guy once who would have done well to remember that. He lied to everybody but could never remember quite what it was, exactly, he had said. And so when the subject came up again his story would be slightly different and people were always suspicious of him. That’s why I didn’t renew after only one year, I was never sure if I could believe him or not. And another problem liars have is that they never believe anybody else either.’
George’s hy-dev pinged him a message. It was Mira; ‘Hi babes, sorry I missed your call, am on the beach with friends and skyphone was in my bag. Will try to call you later. Hope your day is wonderful.’
’Yes’ replied George, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’
’Have you had a marriage licence yet George?’
He looked out across the valley. ‘Once,’ he replied. ‘Lovely girl called Alana. We would have renewed at the end of the first year but she wanted to transfer to a department in the Ameca Region, over the water. She said the west coast of the Ameca Divisions was the best place in the world to live. I prefer Africa and I didn’t want to go. By then, I had met somebody else in Cape Town. I have a house there that a relative, I had never met before, transferred to me when she died. I go quite often and spend the weekend there.’
‘I’ve never been to Cape Town,’ replied Tibha, ‘I would love to go sometime.’
As usual George missed his cue and simply said, ‘I’m going this week. I am catching the Friday afternoon Sub Orbital Jet that will only take around ninety minutes. Come hour 18 I will be in my favourite bar in the city drinking a cold Iceberg in the warm sunshine.’
‘It’s lager with a frozen lime Margarita in it. It floats like an iceberg as it melts’ George explained.
’That sounds amazing,’ said Tibha.
Again George seemed oblivious and admitted, ‘the girl there, Mira. I need to find out what is going on, perhaps this weekend I will.’
’Try the samosa,’ Tibha interrupted, ‘mine are marvellous.’ She looked hard at George, searching for signs of a life. She could see the soul but the life seemed troubled. George bit into a samosa and nodded his approval. He looked up at Tibha who was now gazing across the countryside. He liked the way she dressed. A crisp white shirt with an embroidered eastern pattern and long sleeves. They were partly rolled up to reveal subtle bracelets and a watch that she wore with the face underneath her wrist. It had an open V neck with no collar that revealed nothing although suggested plenty. She wore casual jeans that complimented her slim hips and athletic thighs. Tibha sat with her long legs crossed and with one elbow on her knee nibbling at a pancake. George liked her. She smiled at him and he realised he had been caught staring at her, again. Or, at least, that was how it seemed to him.
‘Erm, ahh, how are you getting on with Wordsworth?’ he asked her clumsily.
‘Oh I finished with that one hours ago,’ she said. ‘It is only a short poem with a couple of references to England but it was the old, dead, language he used that needed a little time. ‘Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,’ she said theatrically.
‘Who speaks like that?’ laughed George.
‘Well, they did,’ she reminded him, ‘but it just needed a little updating that’s all, without changing the meaning of the poem.’
‘So what did you change it to?’ he asked.
‘You had a voice with the soul of the sea,‘ she replied softly. ‘I had to be careful with that. I first wrote, ‘You had a voice that sounded like the sea.’ George winced. ‘Exactly’ she continues, ‘I had to keep the feeling in there, the original feeling with modern words that people can relate to in the same way these days as they did when it was first written.’
George could see why Tibha excelled with the Romantics and the Poets during her ASPP training. She had plenty of soul alright. He wanted to take her to Cape Town, the most soulful city he knew. She would love it. But, he dare not suggest it and anyway… George’s hy-dev vibrated another message into his chest from his shirt pocket. It was Mira again. ‘Yes anyway, what do you know about Christmas?’ he asked Tibha.
‘Oh, A Christmas Carol,’ she remembered his assignment. ‘Well I have read it. It’s a nice story, but total fiction. Wasn’t Christmas some sort of religious festival for the Romans?’ she asked him. ‘The Roman Catholics, among others,’ he corrected her. ‘What does it say in your archive?’
Tibha tapped onto her screen and read out loud. ‘An old, historic festival of the now discredited and abandoned Christian religion that had replaced the civilised and cultured Roman Empire around the fourth century, after it had been established by one of its own Emperors.’ She looked up at George who was again peering through the window.
‘That’s what mine says,’ he replied.
‘So what’s the problem?’ she asked.
‘No problem, no problem at all,’ he said quietly. He looked again at Tibha. She had a face like a spring afternoon. Warm, fragrant and looking forward to something. Summer, probably.
‘How would you like to have lunch in Cape Town?’ he blurted out, ‘someday maybe?’ he added when he had heard his own words.
‘That would be lovely,’ Tibha replied but, sensing George’s anxiety she continued, ‘not this weekend though, I have other plans. Definitely someday, I have always wanted to go and it would be perfect to have someone there who knows his way around. I gather it is a wonderful old city and, besides, I love beaches. We could have lunch on a beach or cocktails at sundown. That sounds amazing.’ She beamed.
George smiled and relaxed in his chair. And then he thought of Mira. And then he thought of Tibha wearing a bikini on Clifton Beach, with oil varnishing her dark skin. And then he reached for his diazepam again.
Tibha noticed and said, ‘right it is back for my last couple of hours, I have another Wordsworth, A Parsonage in Oxfordshire. That shouldn’t be too hard, maybe I will make it a romantic old Manor House, or a farmhouse perhaps. Are you coming, Mr Writer?’
’I certainly am, Miss Romantic,’ replied George. She beamed at him again. ‘Hey,’ he thought, ‘I have said the right thing for once. Or have I? Or is it the diazepam?’ His hy-dev vibrated another message as he caught up alongside Tibha on the way out of the dining room.
‘Is that Cape Town calling?’ she asked him.
‘I doubt it,’ he replied, knowing full well it probably was. He slipped the device out of his pocket and tried to hide his surprise as he said, ‘no it’s Edgar, he’s my grandfather, well great-grandfather, technically.’
George sat back down at his desk, tapped in his password and read Edgar’s message.
‘Good luck today son, first day and all.’ He then, absent-mindedly, began reading it out loud, ‘Next time you come over bring the 15-year-old Jamie and a carton of smokes. I am ok for dz, got a box full this morning.’
George smiled and turned to Tibha who, in contrast, had a look of horror on her face. She appeared, for a moment, as if she had forgotten how to breathe.
‘A fifteen-year-old called Jamie. For your grandfather?’
George paused for a second and examined her mix of confusion and disgust. And then he started laughing.
‘Yes that’s right,’ he teased her, ‘a fifteen-year-old bottle of Jameson Special Reserve Whiskey.’ And he rolled his head back in laughter. In many ways he was relieved. Tibha was not so perfect after all. Perhaps she was a bit daft. That made him less scared of her.
‘What a relief,’ she laughed at herself.
George shook his head, held his hands out with his palms upwards and pulled A Christmas Carol back onto his screen. Studying the second part he read, ‘When Scrooge awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of the bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber.’ He deleted the word ‘chamber’ and replaced it with bedroom. ‘He was endeavouring to pierce the darkness with his ferret eyes, when the chimes of a neighbouring church struck the four quarters, so he listened for the hour.’
Again George paused and considered the line. After a few moments he deleted the word ‘church’ and replaced it with ‘community clock.’ Throughout his work George was leaving the word ‘ghost’ in as it was central to the story and besides, some people still believed in ghosts. There was no harm in that. At the hour 15 his hy-dev reminded him to close for the day and gave him a word count of 11,457. He was satisfied with that.
Gathering up his device he glanced towards Tibha, only to find she had already left and without saying goodbye. He was puzzled for a moment and then his hy-dev vibrated him a message. ‘Tibha: bye Georgie Boy (isn’t that what your friends call you) same time same place tomorrow?’ He grinned happily.
‘How did she know that’ he wondered. He thought about it as he walked along the grand hallway and remembered something Edgar had once told him. ‘You can never enjoy women if you try too hard to understand them. Just pretend to.’
‘Georgie Boy,’ called Hugo as he joined him in the hallway, ‘how was it, what were you given today?’
‘Have you spoken to the Raj girl we saw during induction this morning?’ George challenged him.
‘Nope, why did you?’ said Hugo.
‘No, not really.’
’Georgie Boy?’ He wondered. ‘How did she know that, who is that girl?’
‘So, what did you get on the first day?’ Hugo repeated.
‘A Christmas Carol,’ George told him enthusiastically.
’Nice,’ said Hugo, ‘start with one of the classics why don’t you. I’ve spent all day on Harry bloody Potter.’ George shuddered. He was aware of the stories but wouldn’t want to have to read any of them.
Within fifteen seconds of George and Hugo being delivered to the speeding Hydrotrain, the Woking platform pod pulled alongside and Will stepped on board.
‘Dude,’ he called to Hugo. It’s been a long time.’ The pair shook hands.
‘Two years to be exact,’ replied Hugo, ‘when the three of us went to watch Chelsea play Liverpool in the Complex Stadium.’ Will looked at George who was busy tapping something into his hy-dev.
‘So it was,’ he replied.
’It’s a date,’ George typed, in response to Tibha’s message. And then he wondered if she may misinterpret that as a real date. What would she think about that? George knew that once he had sent it he had ten seconds to recall the message so that it would not be delivered. He started counting the seconds, wondering what to do, when Will sat down next to him.
‘Go alright?’ he asked.
‘Not complaining,’ said George without looking up. ‘Hugo is on the same placement, remember him? He was on my ASPP and you’ve met him several times.’ Will and Hugo stared at George.
‘You ok mate?’ Will asked. ‘Of course I know Hugo, I have just been talking to him, he is right here. What’s going on?’
George looked down at his hy-dev to see the words ‘message delivered.’ He gathered his senses, pulled his shoulders back and said, ‘nothing, no nothing, I just have a lot on my mind.’
‘Woman or work?’ asked Hugo.
’Both,’ George sighed, ‘but they are the not the important things right now. Will, do me a favour, what does it say on your hy-dev about Christmas?’
Will started tapping, looked up and replied, ‘nothing at all.’
’Hugo?’ George asked.
Hugo appeared disinterested but he said, ‘it’s some old religious term that is now obsolete. It’s what they used to call the Winter Festival, a long time ago. It’s probably the same thing only the old name for it.’
‘There you go buddy, it’s the old name for the Winter Fest,’ added Will. ‘So what?’
‘No what,’ George said as he studied his reflection in the window opposite and traced his birthmark with the nail of his little finger. ‘Hey Will, I am going down to the Mother City for the weekend, do you fancy a few days in the sunshine?’
’I certainly do Georgie Boy,’ said Will as he checked his calendar of appointments. ‘I may have to bring Marnie as I promised to take her out for dinner on Saturday night, but she loves Cape Town too so it won’t be hard to persuade her. We have just signed our marriage licence for another year, so there is something to celebrate.’
’You still with Marnie?’ Hugo asked, ‘that must be the third, or fourth contract?’
‘Fourth,’ George interrupted. ‘She’s a good girl, just lacks judgement when it comes to men. You want to come down too Hugo?’
’Not this weekend, I have other plans. I am taking the Sub-Atlantic to New York for the day on Saturday for lunch with an old friend. I may stay over until Sunday but I am playing golf just outside the Complex at midday. Still, I can catch the hour 9 from New York Central Station and be back in Exeter by ten so there is plenty of time.’
George turned to Will. ‘Ok, I will send you a diary insert with the flight number; we leave at hour 16 on the Sub-Orbital Hypersonic and will be landing at 17.30. Ok with you?’
‘Agreed,’ said Will, ‘can’t wait. Are you still in touch with Dr. Feelgood down there?’
‘Of course, Marvin will be in town, he always is. It shall be a weekend to remember.’
‘Even better; and Mira?’ Will asked. ‘I don’t suppose she will remember much of it will she?’
George thought about Mira again, and then about Tibha. And Will offered him his tube of diazepam. Minutes later the Hydrotrain eased into Waterloo Station at the Central Complex and everybody stepped off.
‘So, are you coming with me later? asked Will.
‘Do you know what, not this time,’ George replied. ‘I told Edgar earlier I would see him tonight and take him a crate of his favourite. And I have something to ask him about.’
‘Nice,’ replied Will. ‘Give the old boy my love and tell him I will drop in on him sometime over the next few weeks.’
‘I will, and make sure you do. He would like that,’ George told him as they moved off in opposite directions. Will and Hugo headed for the underground hydro and George to the main exit for the short walk to his apartment building. It was right alongside the main River Thames. Edgar and Will’s own grandfather had been close friends back in the old days. Both families had lived in the same street on the south side of the Central Complex. Will had known the old boy for as long as he could remember. And Edgar had always been fond of the lad. He had some connection to his own mother although neither Will nor George quite knew what it was. Mind you, they hadn’t even known their own mothers very well after they had been assessed and joined the Training Academy. George hadn’t seen his mother since then and the last he heard was that she had recently reached the age of fifty-six, been withdrawn and was now enjoying life somewhere in the south of the Division of Gaul.
Shortly before the hour 20 George scanned his ident-card at the entrance to the warehouse, which opened the main door. At the same time Edgar’s television screen split to reveal a picture of the hallway and he watched George carry a box towards the elevator. With a tap of his hy-dev Edgar granted the boy access and turned back to his laboratory. He ended the day’s experiment and closed the door.
‘Alright granddad,’ called George as he walked into the apartment, ‘I have bought you a fifteen-year-old. Twelve of them actually’ he added as he set the case down, peeled off the top and pulled out a bottle of the finest fifteen-year-old reserve whiskey that two dollars could buy.
‘Don’t mind if I do son, you know where the glasses are. Have you eaten?