Last Man in London
(2014 Paperback Edition)
by Albert Jack
Money for Old Rope Publishing
Last Man in London
(2014 Paperback Edition)
Copyright ©December 2013 Albert Jack
Cover Art: Money for Old Rope Publishing
Cover Design: Money for Old Rope Publishing
All rights are reserved to the author. no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
This is largely a work of fiction although the author could not resist the temptation to be creative with historical detail wherever possible. Any reference to any real life character or name used is purely coincidental, for the most part.
Money for Old Rope Publishing
PO Box 661
albertjackchat (facebook & Twitter)
About the Author
Albert Jack is a writer and historian. His first book, Red Herrings and White Elephants explored the origins of well-known idioms and phrases and became an international bestseller in 2004. It was serialised by the Sunday Times and remained in their bestseller list for sixteen straight months. He followed this up with a series of bestsellers including Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep, Pop Goes the Weasel and What Caesar did for My Salad.
Fascinated by discovering the truth behind the world’s great stories, Albert has become an expert in explaining the unexplained, enriching millions of dinner table conversations and ending bar room disputes the world over. He is now a veteran of hundreds of live television shows and thousands of radio programmes worldwide. Albert lives somewhere between Guildford in England and Cape Town in South Africa.
Other Books By Albert Jack
Red Herrings and White Elephants
Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep
Loch Ness Monsters and other Mysteries Solved
Pop Goes the Weasel
The Old Dog and Duck
What Caesar did for My Salad
It’s a Wonderful Word
Money for Old Rope – Part 1
Money for Old Rope – Part 2
The Jam: Sounds from the Street
Want To Be a Writer? Then Do it Properly
Last Man in London
Of course he was nervous; he often was at times like these. Especially today as it was the first day of his contribution. His contribution to The Corporation that had been training him for his life’s work. For sixteen years their academy had been teaching him to be George Willoughby. And it was finally time to start giving something back to the people who had invested so much in his future. And, of course, in their own. George fumbled in his trouser pocket for the packet of diazepam he had collected from the smoke store on his way to the hydrostation. A couple of those would stop his internal organs from rattling. They usually did. He pulled gently on his earlobe and peered up at the departures board. The concourse of the main hydro-terminal at Waterloo Station was, as usual, neat, clean and with people moving casually around as they collected breakfast, met with friends or simply headed for their allocated platforms. Nobody appeared worried, nobody appeared hurried. And yet George stood upon legs that felt as if they had no bones.
Everybody appeared to know their purpose and George wondered how many of them were about to begin the first day of their working lives. It was, after all, the first week for his year of graduates to make their way to new work zones. To begin the life they had been preparing for since their career selection process sixteen years earlier, when all students has been assessed, at the age of ten, and allocated a suitable role within The Corporation. A role they would then spend the remainder of their education being carefully prepared to carry out. Finally George found what he was searching for. Platform 12, the South West Hydrotrain to Exeter was leaving at 09.15am and scheduled to arrive at the Southern Central Terminus at 09.37am. ‘Man, these Hydros are getting faster,’ he thought. ‘That’s 235km in 22 minutes.’ From Exeter he could catch the Sub Atlantic Pulsed Plasma Hydro to New York, Washington, Miami or Rio de Janeiro, if he wished. They were even faster.
George sucked the air in between his teeth and studied the terminals along the line between Waterloo and Exeter until he found Guildford; arriving at 09.22, which allowed him more than enough time to reach his work zone and begin at 10am. George was never late for anything. Nobody ever was.
‘Willoughby,’ called a voice marginally high enough above the low hum of the concourse to attract his attention, ‘where were you placed?’ George turned to see one of his oldest friends, Will Grainger, approaching with his usual wide smile. The pair had been neighbours as children, had attended assessment school together in the Central Complex and, despite being parted when Will was assigned a position in the Industrial Training Programme, whilst George had been placed on the Literature Updating Curriculum, they had remained close friends.
George felt relief. He had spent the entire weekend trying to control his nerves and, at one point, had felt as if his lower intestine had turned into ragged ice, dropped a little and was repeatedly stabbing him in the kidneys. He was pleased to see a friendly and familiar face.
Will seemed to have no similar concern. ‘Dude,’ he called again, ‘where were you placed in the end?’
‘Guildford,’ George replied. ‘There is a Department of Literature just outside the old town and a pod-car runs right beneath the building. I’ve plenty of time.’
Grainger looked up at the departures board. ‘I got Woking,’ he added, ‘it’s only one stop before yours and look, there is another Hydro leaving at 09.45. Guildford is only seven minutes away, let’s sit for coffee.’
George hesitated but his friend was already heading for the dispenser. ‘Ok, he called after him, but I’m taking mine with me and not sitting around here wasting time with you. Besides, I am keen to get there, see what the place looks like, to see where I am going to be spending the next thirty years.’
’Thirty years,’ Grainger repeated quietly. ‘They program us for sixteen years to make one single, repeated, contribution to the company for the next thirty. Then withdrawn at fifty six and free to spend the rest of our lives doing what exactly?’
‘As many 25-year olds as I can George joked.’ Grainger knew he wasn’t joking. George began to calm down a little as the pair made their way to Platform 12 and the diazepam started to work its magic. ‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Will as George offered him the packet.
‘Keep them,’ he told him, ‘I’ve plenty.’ Will stuffed the tube into his pocket.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all, thought George. At least he wasn’t the only one making his debut into the real world, as his training supervisors had repeatedly called it. ‘The Real World?’ Grainger echoed his thoughts. ‘It won’t be any different to the role-play world we have become used to. I was fully trained two years ago and have spent all of my time since then doing exactly what I will be doing today, after the induction morning. Simple Transition they called it.’
George already knew as he also graduated two years earlier, as had everybody else from their respected education programmes, and spent that final twenty four months on the Advanced Supervised Preparation Programme (ASPP). The whole point of that was so graduates could start contributing to the company from the moment they took their placements. It was the same each year; a seamless placement, zero disruption to those who had already begun their life contributions and without disruption to the work supervisors and the rest of the department.
The Hydrotrain slid to a silent halt at the terminal and the pair stepped on. George turned to his friend, ‘you also stuck to the ten-till-three work period then?’ he asked.
‘I don’t like early mornings and want to be back at Central Complex by half three,’ said Will. ‘That leaves me the rest of the day to do what Will does best.’
George shuddered. ‘Count me in later then, I will need some of that by the end of this day.’
During their final two years on the ASPP all graduates were invited to choose their daily working program. Each employee of the company had to contribute a full five hours of work for each of four days in a week. George opted to continue his ASPP hours as they suited him, Will had done the same but anybody could change, after checking the contribution pattern on their company issued hydro-devices, selecting available shifts and then logging them onto the central server which would alter their tracking patterns accordingly. The Global Positioning System on their hy-devs would record their contribution routines for the work period although, in truth, they recorded everything.
Will and George both knew, as they scanned their ident-cards at the platform gate, and again as they entered the work zone, that their movements were registered at the Divisional Database. So what; it was they same for everybody. It had been for all of their lives and, besides, the only time anybody checked it was during their annual appraisal, or if anybody had gone missing. Such as the famous case of Ivy George. She was the student who dropped hers in a lake whilst taking digi-pics on a lone, day trip to Boston. When the Divisional Database failed to pick up her signal for thirty minutes her Education Supervisor had been alerted and within seconds the entire Corporation had been informed and her picture profile was automatically displayed on everybody’s hy-dev main page.
Poor Ivy had some explaining to do when she finally arrived back at the Central Complex Hydroport, where the cameras immediately recognised her, alerted the nearest supervisor and she was taken to the personnel officer for a de-brief and retraining day. In truth, Ivy had quite enjoyed it. The following morning people she didn’t know smiled warmly at her, having recognised her digi-profile, which had been embedded on every home screen the previous day. Ivy found herself enjoying the slight attention and was disappointed when, within hours, something else had occupied everybody’s focus and she seemed to be forgotten about again.
George settled into his seat and studied his reflection in the smoked glass window opposite him. He had a narrow head with a small pointed nose and prominent cheekbones. Shoulder length blond hair and, at around 6’2, was carrying a few kilograms of extra weight, which his supervisor had already recommended a fitness programme for. It began the following week.
‘It’s your own fault you fat bastard,’ Will goaded him as if reading his thoughts. ‘You want to cut down on your pies and pints mate, and get some exercise.’ George laughed, pulled gently on his earlobe and then traced his finger along the port wine birthmark, around the size of a thumbnail, which drew attention to his right cheek. His supervisor had also recommended a clinic that would remove it for him
‘And leave the birth-mark,’ Will added, ‘it gives you character. It’s part of you and there is nothing perfect about perfect.’
George laughed again and sipped his coffee whilst considering the reflection of his friend as the Hydro sped out of the Central Complex and through the countryside. Will was shorter and with brown wavy hair. By the look of it his obsession with his hairdresser was not reciprocated. He was also leaner than George and fitter. He had a round, friendly face with a near permanent smile that revealed a prominent gap between his two front teeth. ‘I probably will,’ George said aimlessly. ‘As long as you leave the teeth alone.’
Will grinned widely as the Platform Pods of the Woking Terminal pulled alongside the Hydro and connected. ‘See you later then,’ said Will as the main doors opened and he stepped into the pod, after making way for those who were joining the Hydro. With that the doors smoothly closed, the Pod disengaged and peeled away from the main train. George sped onwards and watched as the Woking pod slowed into the terminal and the Guildford pods pulled up alongside and quietly connected. He stood up to wait for his turn. The tablet in his pocket had pinged a reminder that Guildford was only fifteen seconds from Woking.
Looking out of the smoked glass window George studied the building ahead as the hydro-pod slowed into its terminal. It was old, very old and built from red bricks with tinted windows and painted white window frames. ‘Like something from the old books,’ George grinned to himself. ‘Like many of the buildings in Cape Town. Ahh, Mira,’ George thought. ‘Still, no time for her now.’ He would see her at the weekend. At that moment George’s hy-dev pinged him a personal message which he checked as he moved towards the assembly area for the new intake. Mira: ‘good luck today babes like you need it, see you on Friday night x’ George tapped a single letter reply and slipped the device back into his pocket. She would know what that meant.
As he approached the intake lounge he checked his watch; 09.25. Looking through the smoked glass windows he cast his eye around the group of around twenty five graduates and recognised only one from his ASPP training. Hugo Gomez had not exactly been a friend but at least he was a friendly face, a familiar one. ‘Hugo,’ called George as he walked into the room. ‘Georgie boy,’ came the reply and the pair hugged like the friends they were not.
‘So, you got Guildford too?’ Hugo asked rhetorically.
‘I applied.’ Said George. ‘It seemed obvious to me, within seven minutes of the Central Complex so I can stay in my old apartment there. Edgar is on the Complex too…’
Edgar?’ interrupted Hugo.
‘He is my father’s grandfather. The only relative I know about these days, I go and see the old boy once a week, take him some whiskey and smokes and he sometimes talks about the old days. Never gives much away though, the old bastard, but he has seen it all and I often take my advice from him. He has been a sort of mentor to me, outside of the Corporation.’
‘We are not supposed to have those,’ replied Hugo, ‘but, I suppose, if he is family.’
George ignored the remark and continued, ‘he was something to do with the Corporation at a high level but retired in the early days, back in AI03, I think. He was given a fantastic top floor apartment in an old converted warehouse as a life reward. You should see the views from there. Right across the Complex and he has the whole floor so it’s a 360 degree panorama. And besides, my subject is history and he has lived in it, so I have learned a lot from him’ George watched as the supervisor walked into the room. ‘I will take you there one day, you can meet the old man, he is full of stories’
Hugo, George and the others straightened to face the last man into the room. ‘I would like that,’ Hugo whispered. ‘Seen much of Will?’ he asked.
‘On the hydro this morning, he got Woking for his Industrial Placement.’ George replied. ‘I saw it, just seconds along the line, I will make sure I am on the same hydro as you both tomorrow, it would be good to see him again and…’ Hugo tailed off.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ interrupted the Graduate Supervisor, ‘and welcome to your first day of contribution, the first day of your working lives and, of course, the first day of the rest of your lives.
‘What a twat,’ whispered George. ‘I hope he is not going to talk in clichés all morning.’
Hugo ignored him and listened alertly. ‘My name is Vincent Baptist and I have been the Intake Supervisor at this department for the last twenty years. There is nothing I do not know about what goes on around here and so if you need anything at all then I am the man to ask. I will be supervising you until I am withdrawn, which is in ten year’s time’ George listened as he surveyed the other graduates. They were all of the same age and all of them, like himself and Hugo, would have been assessed for this contribution at the same time and received a variation of the same training and preparation at one of the five hundred and twenty academies throughout the Corporation.
There were marginally more young women than men and he realised that, apart from Hugo, he knew none of them. George’s gaze stopped and rested upon a beautiful brown skinned girl with shiny, black hair who was staring up at the supervisor, listening intently. George found himself staring at her. She glanced quickly towards him and then back again as a small smile, which began in those brown eyes, briefly lit up her face. George quickly turned back to the supervisor and realised he had not been listening. He pulled gently on his ear with his thumb and forefinger and forced himself to concentrate. ‘You haven’t missed anything,’ whispered Hugo. ‘And yes, she is cute. I noticed her earlier.’
’What did he say?’ hissed George.
‘Just some crap about where the sports centre is, the dining room, overnight suites blah blah blah. It’s all in the induction PDF anyway, I read it earlier. Don’t worry about it.’ The supervisor’s words became audible to George again as he tuned back in.
‘And so, as you know, there is very little I can tell you about what you will be doing here. You are all fully trained, completely prepared and can go to your work zones right away, if you like. However, for those of you who are interested I can offer you a tour of the archives. Here you will see books. Real books as they were first printed back in the days when we used to use paper for everything.’ Some of the graduates started chattering excitedly. They had never seen a book before. They had all been recalled during the first years of the Incorporation and replaced by a brand new updated digital version that was uploaded automatically to everybody who handed their old battered, original copies into the re-cycling facilities.
Edgar, on the other hand, had an old chest full of them in his storage area back at the warehouse. He had shown George once, but hadn’t let him read any since they were considered to be against company policy to own, when everybody had the new digital copies safely on their hy-dev bookshelves. The Main Board’s Public Relations Department had sent an email to the entire corporation reminding everybody that paper was a valuable resource that needed to be preserved and recycled. Although George had never been told of what it was being used for instead. He had never seen any, apart from the old, tattered copy of a story called Treasure Island that Edgar had once, briefly, let him see before locking it back into the chest with what appeared to be a couple of hundred others.
The supervisor’s voice faded back into range again as he announced, ‘so, remember that the old democratic governments of the past encouraged fiction writers to make up names, places and situations, for reasons best known to themselves, and it is our job, in these new, enlighten times, to correct some of those details. The Main Board want an accurate record of history, not the fictionalised version the old regimes used to teach its subjugated populations, such as your grandfathers and great grandfathers. When you log on to your work zones your will all receive an introductory memo and an induction PDF. Once you have read this your first novel, chosen from your specialist subjects that were identified during ASPP, will download for you to begin correcting. Ladies and gentlemen, please remember there have been tens of millions of books published over the last, corrupt, five hundred years or so. They all need to be corrected and then preserved. It will take many of us many years and certainly, for you, it will be a lifetime’s work. Work that is well worth doing if it means that future generations will have a complete and accurate record of The Corporation’s real history, I am sure you would agree.’
Some of the group gasped eagerly. After all, correcting history was a very important career to have been chosen for. For these graduates there was no better way of spending their entire working life than reading books and making the odd improvement or deletion here and there to make sure it was perfect, accurate and that it reflected true history. All of them would also be given time to write their own books for publication by The Corporation. They were all now professional writers and editors and would, themselves, become part of the future’s own history. It was an exciting time.
‘And finally, for those of you would like to see the archive, for those of you who would like to see the old obsolete format, the way books used to be produced, then please follow me.’ George joined the back of the group and watched the dark-skinned beauty move slowly in front of him. From where he was he could almost smell her. He tried to get a little closer. The supervisor spoke again, ‘remember everyone, these are not all of the books ever written. The Corporation has about a five hundred departments like this all across the regions and other books are being corrected, or translated into Albion from old, dead, languages by thousands of literary workers just like you. Although all of the books you are about to see,’ he added proudly, ‘were updated and corrected right here in this very building. It is a historic achievement by those working here both past and present.’
Hugo could feel the sense of excitement among the group. As they stopped at the door to the archive George brushed arms with the girl with the dark eyes and, for a brief moment, felt her naked skin upon his. At that moment he felt excitement of an entirely different kind to the rest of the group. They entered the climate controlled archive room and along the shelving sat lines and lines of what the graduates immediately recognised as the old books. But they alone, among all the company members, knew this for only the graduates of the Literature Updating Curriculum (LUC) had been taught about books and magazines. Graduates from the Agriculture & Farming, or Industrial, Curriculum’s didn’t need to know anything about hardback and paperback books.
There had been nothing illegal about them in their day, but they were simply objects from a time long ago and nobody had used them, or pens, pencils, or paper for over forty years. Instead, the tap, tap tapping of the hydro-device was all members relied upon in the year AI43. Every member had been allocated their own on the first day of Pre-Training that was replaced each year with an updated model.
The grads marvelled at the sight. Some gasped while others simply stared. A bold few stepped forward and ran their fingers along the creased and fading spines and experienced the unique sensation of fanning a few pages. The girl with the dark eyes appeared to be close to tears, as if she had waited her entire life for a moment like this and had not been disappointed. ‘This may be her first orgasm,’ Hugo whispered. George looked at him and ignored the remark. To the right of the archive was an open plan area with hundreds, if not thousands, of neatly lined desks, each with a chair and a thin, modern plasma screen of about 20 inches wide that their hy-devs would automatically connect to once they were placed upon any of the desks.
The supervisor turned to address his new recruits. ‘Ladies, gentlemen, once again you will remember learning of how fiction writers of past generations such as Dickens, Twain and Nabakov had made up names for regions that they called countries. And then they all copied each other. The Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, for example, called the Western Division of Albion, that we are all part of today, a country called England and even gave it a central city with the name of London. Emile Zola then borrowed the idea and referred to the Western Division of Gaul as France and gave it a central city called Paris. Mark Twain made up a place he called America, a name he gave the ten Western Divisions across the AtlanticSea. It was a fashion among fiction writers to provoke and sensationalise their stories but it wasn’t long before scurrilous and ill-meaning people, wrestling for power and control of these lands, adopted their ideas and presented them to uneducated people as facts. They re-wrote their history’
George appeared a little confused by this revelation. He thought John Bunyan had invented England, not William Shakespeare, in the first book ever published way back in the year AD1678 of the old calendar. That’s what Edgar had once told him although, when he tried to look for it at the Amazon Library, there was no trace to be found on the search archive. Mind you, he couldn’t remember the title. Something about a pilgrim was all he could recall. The supervisor continued without interruption.
‘They then used those uneducated people in the respected regions, your ancestors, to fight wars with each other in an attempt to control or defend these so called countries. They motivated the masses with what they called ‘national pride’ or ‘national defence.’ A little like the way the Middle East is organised today with warring nations using religion to provoke violence towards each other. Yes indeed, Shakespeare, Twain and the rest of them have a lot to answer for. We should all be grateful that when the Main Board took over the running of the Corporation they banned all religion throughout the Divisions. Here in the Western Corporation we have nothing to go to war over with each other and can all work together for the good of ourselves and The Corporation. Only a fool would allow these fiction writers to create an environment for the greed and avarice of democracy to raise its ugly head again. And in those days mankind was never short of fools. It was all revealed as a sham anyway. If voting had actually changed anything for the better then nobody would have been allowed to do it anyway.’
George appreciated the irony. All graduates had learned about democracy and Edgar had mentioned something once, so he made a mental note to ask him more about it one day. He then felt his personal messenger vibrate from the inside pocket of his jacket. Glancing down he saw it was Mira again, ‘Hello babes, how’s your first day going?’ George wasn’t quite sure how he felt about Mira. When they met she was just about to enter her first year-long marriage contract, and George was signing his own. Both had contracts with other partners. But George knew he was dismayed when he chose not to renew at the end of the first twelve months with his wife and yet Mira went ahead and renewed hers for a second year. That was a blow and when she did finally end after the third year she blamed George for not revealing his real feelings for her properly. She said she didn’t know how he felt about her and that was probably true; he wasn’t sure himself. He made a mental note to skyphone her later as he preferred to talk rather than personal message all day long, which was something of a habit of Mira’s. He would try to speak to her later, although she rarely answered his calls, unless he caught her on a good day.
George wandered through the work zone and selected a desk close to the window on the far side of the room. Placing his hy-dev on its surface the screen woke up and prompted him for his unique password. George tapped upon the keyboard and became aware of a presence at his right shoulder. ‘Hi, I’m Tibha,’ said the girl with the dark eyes. George turned in his seat, offered his hand and replied, ‘I’m George Willoughby, I noticed you earlier.’ Tibha’s eyes began to smile again, ‘I know, and I noticed you too, mind if I take this table?’ she asked as she pulled out a chair and sat down without waiting for a reply. George felt his natural anxiety rise up again and his marrowbone appeared to vibrate within his bones. He reached for some more diazepam in a manner he hoped she wouldn’t notice. ‘Vitamins,’ he explained when she did notice.
George wasn’t comfortable in the company of women as beautiful as Tibha. She had elegance about her, a friendly aloofness, and looked as though her ancestors were from the area of the old British Raj he had learned about when he corrected a book called A Passage to India during his ASPP final training. He loved the look of the women he had seen in the illustrations and one with a similar appearance had been on his curriculum for a couple of years before transferring to one of the ten Western Divisions. George remembered Jalini well, but had never found the courage to ask her out when he had the chance. He pretended to read his induction PDF as he tried to think of something to say to Tibha that was intelligent, funny and appropriate all at the same time. He had nothing. In truth George wasn’t comfortable in the company of any woman, let alone an example as beautiful as Tibha. As usual, he would have to leave it to her to do all the hard work, if there was any to be done.
‘So what is your specialist area?’ Tibha asked quietly.
‘You are a damned idiot,’ thought George, ‘even you could have come up with something like that.’
‘Nineteenth century of the old calendar,’ he smiled.
‘I know when the nineteenth century was,’ she teased. George reached for the diazepam once more. ‘Yours?’ he countered. Tibha turned to face him and George felt her warm, dark eyes penetrate his soul.
‘The Romantics, the poets,’ she said tenderly and then followed that with, ‘somebody has to make sure that Shelly wasn’t telling bloody lies.’ Tibha turned back to face her screen and, once again, a smile spread across her perfect features. George stared at her in disbelief; he hadn’t expected that. He was, for a moment, mesmerized but then started laughing.
‘Somebody certainly has,’ he agreed. ‘And keep an eye on Byron too, that one was always up to no good.’ Tibha laughed out loud and George felt the anxiety drain from his body as he turned to face his own screen, pressed the download prompt and received his very first assignment.
‘Great,’ he announced, ‘A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.’
’Boring,’ said Tibha, ‘And easy. You can start with the title; he invented Christmas and look at all the trouble that has caused over the years.’
‘True,’ George replied. ‘But he didn’t exactly invent Christmas. That was done long ago and he just made more people believe in it. With this particular book as it happens.’
George had been given A Christmas Carol to update and correct during his ASPP training and so he knew the story well. He had received the top mark in the academy for his re-write which was why, he imagined, he was given the task to do again for real this time. He also wondered how many other writers throughout the Corporation were tackling the same novel at the very same time, or had done so in years gone by. It didn’t matter. Today, this was his to work on. He had a beautiful girl who had chosen him to sit next to and it was going to be a perfect day.
He turned to his keyboard and tapped in the words, ‘A Winter’s Tale of Morality.’ That was it, he had started proper. It was his first unsupervised contribution to literature and history. George studied his work, considered his new title for a moment and then deleted the words ‘of Morality.’ He then read on; ‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner.’ George paused, considered the passage and then replaced the word clergyman with the word ‘doctor.’ Next to him Tibha chuckled to herself, ‘hey I got London 1802 by William Wordsworth.’
George laughed. ‘I don’t envy you having to take references to England and London out of Wordsworth,’ he told her. ‘You won’t have much left will you?’
‘It’s easy,’ she replied. ‘You just have to replace every mention of England or London with the word Albion. That’s it, job done.’ He thought about that for a moment, turned back to his work and continued reading.