The Horses of Wooldale Road (Part 2 of 3)
You can read part one here: https://www.abctales.com/story/marandina/horses-wooldale-road-part-1-3
The Horses of Wooldale Road (Part 2 of 3)
The horses of Wooldale Road prospered over the years. The original, equine occupants of verdant fields long forgotten, replaced by automatons of the future. Those little, white vehicles with their wide front windows, three wheels on either side, twin headlamps and an antennae that blinks orange in the dark now local celebrities in their own right.
The world is a very different place now. Global warming has advanced leaving harvests ruined, countries under water, flooding a regular event and forest fires all too common. Tragically. Greenhouse gasses have raised the temperature beyond the tipping point and we are the wrong side of being able to turn back. David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg called it.
Artificial Intelligence or AI has been around for a while. For a long time, in fact. There has been much debate about the benefits. The doomsayers of the early 21st century suggested that it would bring about mass unemployment on a level not seen before. Florent Bordot in the Journal of Innovation, Economics and Management had suggested a 10% increase in the stock of industrial robots was associated with a 0.42 point increase in unemployment. That was in 2022. Others thought it would herald a new age of leisure that most would wallow in. Pina coladas on the terrace come Friday night in Croydon. On balance, truth often usually sits somewhere in the middle of extremes. Sadly, on this occasion, the harbingers of doom predicted correctly.
So here I was again at the end of what was formerly a working week. For all but the lucky few, by the time you made it to the weekend, time had been spent simply trying to survive. The world was a mess. Along with the implications of the continued development of artificial intelligence and devastation caused from Climate Change, the population had continued to increase. In 2020 there was something like 7.8 billion souls living on this planet called Earth; by 2040 that number had increased to 9.2 billion. This had resulted in apocalyptic food shortages, famine for billions and geo-political tensions that had resulted in devastating wars. All that was left was barely functioning governments in most countries where martial law was the norm.
I had been a housing officer for Northants Council once. I was responsible for the allocation of accommodation based on need amongst other duties. But this role had become automated along with baristas, couriers, airline pilots, HGV drivers and just about every job you could think of. Cars, lorries and planes had become automated and people jobs had been replaced by more efficient algorithms.
As the fierce sun slowly made its way along a familiar arc towards sunset, I found myself staring out of the front window. I could hear the buzz of a drone overhead. A rash of orange and red bloomed across the sky, bringing into relief the tiled rooves and chimneys of the houses opposite. The estate was a mix of tired and dilapidated semi-detached and detached housing. Most windows were boarded up with graffiti spray-painted across the wood. Burnt out cars sat outside houses complementing craters that punctured streets. Residents were a jumble of disaffected and disillusioned singletons and families.
I could hear the familiar tones of one of the delivery robots from the former Co-Op. It was imploring my neighbour across the close to open up its hatch and take one of the items inside. It was one of the two witching hours deemed as the optimum times to deliver food. Temperatures could reach at least 50C daily with no clouds to speak of having boiled away due to dangerous levels of ozone. Anything out in the midday sun including mad dogs and English men was considered madness.
I noted the time on my mobile phone as 20:22. In an hour’s time it would be sunset. This was the safest time to be outside as it was the coolest point whilst it was still light. It was folly to be out after dark. Gangs roamed the streets along with drug dealers and pimps. The black-uniformed security forces that patrolled the districts inside their electric SUVs with blacked-out windows were less willing to intervene with incidents after dark. There had been too many instances of officers being jumped by the lawless rogues that seemed to crop up on every corner. These were difficult times.
I skulked at the side of my window peeking through a hole in the boarding. I watched as the robot courier went from house to house delivering its cargo. In its hold were sachets of food for each household. The robots came twice each day – just after sunrise and an hour before sunset. It was the only means to a meal people have now. The Co-Op, where the first courier robots had emanated from some twenty years ago, was now a government facility. Dispersal of supplies was co-ordinated by computer programmes that ran the store.
A neighbour opposite across the close was opening his front door. I could hear the chain rattling as he cautiously peeped out, wary of anyone else being around to jump him. He looked down at the machine and lifted the hatch. His appearance was haggard and drawn, stress etched on his features. A diminutive man, his attire was made up of faded, orange shorts and sandals. He knew he was entitled to one, vacuum-sealed sachet of food. There were sensors inside that detected when more than an allocated allowance was removed. This, in turn, triggered an alarm that would result in gun-toting, black-visored security men on the doorstep within minutes. For anyone arrested, they were taken away and not seen again. It was like being transported to the Colonies for stealing an apple. I watched as he disappeared back into his house. The portion delivered would have to keep him and his wife and three kids going until morning.
I turned away from my vantage point. The show was over. There wasn’t a great deal to do during the day other than avoid going out. The Holo-TV had access to one channel which, of course, was run by the State. In between the occasional news bulletin, the only broadcast was old, black and white movies albeit projected in hologram format.
There was a rapping on the door. I thought for a minute that the robots may have developed a new way of announcing their presence but it was only old Ivan from next door. He had run the gamut of high radiation levels to call round. He was wearing an old mac that was pulled over his head. As I let him in, I noticed that the robot had just delivered to my closest neighbour and was about to declare itself outside any second. I kept the door ajar long enough to collect my cargo. Ivan had scurried past me and into the living room. He found himself a wooden stool to sit on and waited. Dust motes wafted in the air.
On a small, circular table sat a bronze chess board with ornate pieces made from lead laid out ready to play. I had bought this set on holiday in Corfu many years ago. I could still picture the bustling streets, the daytime heat shimmering in the air and the cooler evenings when the streets thronged with people. Happier times. I sat at a stool of my own directly opposite my neighbour. He looked as ancient as Methuselah. With a long, straggly beard, bushy hair that had greyed a long time ago, a face weather-beaten with wrinkles around his eyes, Ivan looked as old as the hills. The fact was that we were both in our seventies and the only remaining survivors from our respective households.
“I see you have some gin left.” Ivan remarked looking down at the tin cups on the wooden floor. He was wearing an old white t-shirt and grey, track suit bottoms. His trainers were tattered and torn and emphasised the fact that he was not wearing socks.
“Yes, Giles at number 18 makes it in his bath. It’s kind of him to share.” I stared at Ivan’s shock of hair wondering if birds ever nested in it.
My elderly neighbour scrutinised the board between us and moved one of his pawns one square forward.
“And the news today?” He enquired as he continued peering at the chess board.
“The news is the same as it was yesterday and the day before. Nothing good, of course.” I replied in a tone that lamented the state of things.
There was silence for the next few minutes as we both made our respective moves following opening gambits. My front room was spartan with only a mattress and thin blanket in my dining room that was partitioned from the room we were in by French doors. It was cooler sleeping on the ground floor. I rarely, if ever, ventured up to the bedrooms above these days. My wife and children had long gone and I had lived alone for an age. I lose track of how long.
I took a swig of the moonshine gin. The concoction tasted bitter and I winced as I sipped.
“So you have some moves from the Old Country to try today?” I taunted Ivan who looked suitably unmoved. He had travelled to the UK after the end of the Russian occupation in the twenties. His accent had become less and less Eastern European over the decades but there remained an undertone of Slavic when he spoke, albeit his words were invariable cushioned in a quiet melancholy. He wordlessly gestured with his hands and shrugged his shoulders.
“What should we look forward to? Tomorrow will be the same as today?” Ivan looked resigned. By now we had cut open our food from the plastic sachets and poured it onto crockery plates. The substance was a kind of stew with thin slivers of pale meat. Nobody knew what the food consisted of. It was wishful thinking that it might be chicken but this seemed unlikely. We ate it cold. Eating was a functional experience with little pleasure.
“Do you recall the good times? When our wives and children were still alive?” I hear them at night. I hear them laughing. I hear them crying.” Ivan sounded maudlin. “I still see my Bodhan on the beach, wind in his hair and the sound of the waves lapping.”
To tell the truth, my memories were hazy these days. I recognised my longevity but often felt damned because of it. I had no desire to outlive my family. Neither of us had wanted that. We were both victims of dystopian times. The world had come to hate itself and was imploding. There appeared to be no way back from this precipice. It was just a question of marking time and surviving. There was little purpose left.
“I had a dream last night.” Ivan announced quietly yet with an ominous tone. “The sky was pure white after a blinding flash. Dust clouds rolled across the land. Many people turned to ash. So many.” He sighed. We both knew where the nightmare had come from.
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