Bright sunshine lit up the white façade of the great, forty storey Television Unit 5 building as Robert Stirling walked out onto the hot sidewalk and strode towards his small glide car. Pre-occupied with the task in hand and the heat that was making even walking to his vehicle unpleasant, he failed to notice the young woman with chestnut coloured hair that came out of the building after him and walked over towards a pale blue, baby glide, parked at the kerbside. Robert engaged drive and moved silently along the familiar road, signalling a left turn at the end and then moving on to the busy Euston Road. He soft touched the cold climate button in front of him and waited for the prickly heat of perspiration beads on his forehead and under his armpits to subside, and cool, clear air to consume the space in the car. As he moved slowly along the Euston road he looked ahead at the panoramic sweep of his windscreen and into the long mirror and at that point did notice the small bubble behind him but thought nothing more about it. Glancing at the uppermost point of the high, curved windscreen he could see and now hear the distant purr of two helicars, high up above in the sky, moving ahead purposefully.
The glide car moved steadily on, past the shining silver and glass façade of Marylebone station and helicoach port, the heat of the day creating the illusion that the building was white hot and the silver metal plating melting in front of him. A heat haze seemed to permeate the whole road now and all the skyscraper buildings on either side of the main highway. Why, why was it so hot, Robert wondered idly, why was it always so boiling hot from March and on through to October these days? He had no answer. Sizzling hot throughout the summer months, bitterly, icy cold from November through to March, you were lucky to get two weeks of mild or moderate weather in any given year.
Robert listened to the soothing whir of his almost silent vehicle as he went past King William’s Cross station and turned left past that building. He was vaguely aware that the baby blue glide turned left behind him but did not give it much further thought. He looked down at the mercury level rising slowly on his fuel gauge on the dashboard and decided to pull in at the electrofill concourse just ahead. He pulled up alongside one of the ten tall pillars, got out, grabbed the thick black cable and plugged it into the side plug of his vehicle. He keyed in 150 miles on his mini pad, tapped in his bank payment authority number and pressed the start button on the bright yellow pillar. The light hum of electricity coursing into the huge battery in his small vehicle continued for, perhaps, four minutes; Robert was pre-occupied with trying to stop the perspiration breaking out on his forehead again by sheltering in the shade of the small rest concourse equipped with yellow plastic seats. When he heard the brief, metallic ping sound he hurried back gratefully to his vehicle, anxious to get in and turn the air exchange, cool conditioning system back on. As he returned to the car a flurry of tiny helicars went by overhead, the whir and throb of the batch breaking the almost complete silence on the hot ground.
Turning left out of the concourse he glanced to his right and noticed that same small, pale blue baby glide parked back along the road. He frowned and wondered if it was following him; he had spotted it first in his mirror on the Euston road; it was certainly the same car, few had that colour paint today. Why would anybody want to follow him though, he wondered and his thought was immediately succeeded by a pang of fear that shot through him. He increased his speed suddenly and began to concentrate on getting further and further away from the little blue vehicle behind him, telling himself as he did so that he was probably imagining it anyway and the parked vehicle he had seen was just coincidentally the same model and colour as the one in Euston road.
It would be a long and busy day; he was due in Hampstead any minute now to see the new apartment and in the afternoon he would commence directing the final three hour spectacular instalment of ‘Heroic Chariot Race’ for Unit 5 Television. There were many long, speed and danger race shows by most of the other television companies but he knew that HCR on Unit 5 had the highest ratings and was watched regularly, twice a week by something like twenty million people. It would be a long and gruelling afternoon of filming and almost certainly continue well into the evening. He sighed, looked down briefly at the music panel on the dash control board with it’s glowing orange phosphorous light and thought about listening to some music but if he touched the ‘run’ programme button it would offer him a choice of seventy eight options in rock, rhythm and blues, pop, gentle, soothing, romantic, easy listen, musical theatre, film or nostalgic and he didn’t like any of the many options. He longed desperately to hear some ancient European music by Mozart or Haydn or any of the old masters but you couldn’t get hold of it now; there were no recordings in any contemporary format and it was never programmed into vehicle or home sound systems. Even if he risked upsetting senior members of the True Blue party by seeking it out in the sleazy back street shops in Soho, where would he find the old style equipment to play it? Robert shook his head and noticed with satisfaction that he seemed to have shaken off the attentions of the occupant of the little blue car; either that or he had imagined the whole thing and the occupant was heading off now in a totally different direction.
He drove into Hampstead and headed for the area that had once been Shirlock Road and housed rows and rows of ancient Victorian terraced houses and now was the ground space and parking area for ten large blocks stretching up to the sky, shining brightly in the excessive heat of the day in resplendent silver metal and glass frontages. He drove slowly into the car park next to Swiss Cottage House, the first of the giant skyscrapers and left his vehicle after keying in the name of the parking lot on his mini pad and authorising a payment.
Robert sent an alert buzz to the block sales manager from his mini-pad and waited by the wide sweep of the front door glass panels. The man, Henson, a short, chubby, red faced, red haired man, appeared almost immediately and touched a panel which opened the big glass door on the right.
‘Mr. Stirling is it?’ he asked, grinning broadly and perspiring profusely.
‘That’s right,’ Robert answered, shaking the man’s damp, hot hand. Henson had to look up to Robert who, being six feet tall towered above him. Robert had healthy looking, leathery skin and light brown hair and made a striking contrast to the small, rotund Henson. The man indicated the lift and they both stepped inside. The lift moved upward speedily and silently, creating a sensation of floating on air. At the door of apartment 122, Henson took out a small, silver, pen like object and pressed the end which sent a beam to open the thick, heavy front door and they walked in.
‘Moving to the area?’ asked Henson inquisitively as he guided Robert towards a large, airy kitchen with oak coloured plastilite cupboards and fittings.
‘No,’ Robert said looking melancholy, ‘moving out of my little house in Highgate.’
‘House?’ said the man, looking stunned momentarily, ‘you still have a house?’
‘Not for much longer,’ Robert replied smiling.
‘I thought they’d all been pulled down ages ago,’ said Henson, shaking his head negatively.
‘In this area, most of them have now,’ Robert said wistfully.
‘How--- Began the man, eyes widening.
‘How did I manage to keep mine so long? I don’t know, lucky I guess, or good at delaying tactics.’
Robert gazed around the bright, light, glass enclosure that formed the kitchen. Windows surrounded the big room on two sides but the kitchen had every conceivable fitting and looked both functional and airy. Henson winked at him as he stood looking and then pressed a button on his silver ‘pen.’ A light whirring sound ensued and a colour co-ordinated table, breakfast bar and six chairs rose up from the floor and became positioned in the centre of the room.
‘Breakfast bar, use it to eat lunch or dinner too if you feel so inclined,’ said Henson, grinning broadly,‘and tuck it away after use.’ As he spoke the last words he touched the silver ‘pen’ and the furniture sank down under the flooring, folding up as it went and completing the task almost silently.
‘Useful,’ said Robert casually, not wishing to sound too impressed and anxious to negotiate a good price if he decided to buy the apartment.
‘Oh yes,’ said Henson, not letting his enthusiasm be dampened down for an instant, ‘there when you want it, out of sight when you don’t. And made of grade A plastilite to blend in with the kitchen fittings. Great tensile strength, plastilite, but always looks light and slim line.’
‘Living room?’ Robert asked casually, still trying to sound neutral and unimpressed.
‘Ah yes, living room,’ the man repeated, beaming, ‘I think you’re going to love this.’
They walked along the wide corridor and entered the last room on the left. It was in complete darkness as they entered with the full length blind down and covering the wall length plate glass window. As they came into the room though, a faint and eerie light came up on the wall lights and revealed a long, softflex sofa, three matching armchairs and a small occasional table. The far wall was covered by a full length television screen which had a faint phosphorescent, whitish glow and had obviously just been put in standby mode by the house agent. Robert could picture the way this big, comfortable living room would look in the evening as the blind was thick and dark and shut out any trace of daylight.
‘Full digital surround sound from fifteen concealed speakers in the walls and ceiling, of course,’ Henson said brightly, ‘and full control of sound and vision from a small silver panel in that table over there. Detachable of course.’
‘Of course,’ Robert repeated humorously, smiling at Henson
Henson gave the impression of making a grand gesture and pressed his pen. The long blind opened up slowly and silently, the lights dimmed down again and hot, bright sunlight flooded the room from a wall length, reinforced picture window which suddenly made the room appear hot and blindingly bright although the air conditioning was fully operative and the room comfortably cool.
‘Now,’ said Henson theatrically, ‘what price that for a view?’
‘Price we’ll discuss later,’ Robert said, ‘if I decide to take the place,’ but he walked forward almost impulsively as he spoke and gazed out.
The panoramic view of North London was, indeed, stunning. A blueish heat haze covered the far distant buildings but the immediate vista showed every street and building for miles around shimmering in white hot heat and bright light. Down below at street level the familiar red glide buses crept along silently, ‘trolleybuses’ as Londoners called them now, recalling a far, far distant time and a crude form of electric powered bus that had been used on the streets. The endless vistas of glass in the skyscraper buildings all around reflected the sun and transmitted it back blindingly to the two watchers.
‘You won’t find a better view of London in any other apartment,’ Henson said and then, appearing to remember Robert’s last words added ‘although I can’t shift on the asking price I’m afraid, we’ve cut to the bone already.’
‘I think you can shift,’ Robert said softly, ‘the question really is whether you will or not.’
Henson cleared his throat noisily. ‘It’s a beautiful apartment Mr. Stirling, you would be very comfortable here. We all live very well these days.’
Yes, perhaps we do, thought Robert reflectively, at least as far as home life creature comforts are concerned. It was filling in time when not working that worried him most of all. At home the television programmes consisted of every conceivable reality show; games, competitions, races; life in the jungle; on a tropical island, in every extremity of land and weather. Quiz shows, talk shows, viewer participation shows; cooking and wine making, home seeking programmes, the list went on and on. But no plays, no theatre and the only films were the extended, wide screen, glorified travelogues that virtually put you in the tropical or exotic lands being visited. No plays, mused Robert silently, thinking he was missing something he barely knew or understood, so long had it been since he had seen one. The True Blue party did not like them and considered them detrimental to a happy, fulfilled life and human rights. They set up bad feelings and caused people pain and suffering. That was the official line anyway. And you couldn’t see plays anywhere these days, the theatres only put on reality shows and debates and high IQ quiz shows complete with popular host comedians and a lot of audience participation. No plays, no films with dramatic content and, he thought grimly, perhaps worse than anything, no books, at least not in printed form. His father had told him that there had been virtually no books since the ‘twenties, those draconian times after the third and fourth waves of recession when the endless cuts had seen the closure of most libraries, cinemas, theatres, public houses, hotels and shops, hospital facilities, schools, not to mention public conveniences closing and street lighting and cleaning becoming non existent.. Of course there had been massive changes and considerable build up of the economy since the True Blue Party came to power in 2021 following their forced take over of the old Conservative party but at what cost!
‘Sorry’ Robert said, ‘I was lost in thought there for a moment.’
‘Yes sir. I said “did you want to see the bedrooms” ‘?
‘Yes, lead on please.’
‘And there’s a very nice balcony.’
* * * *
It was cool in Henson’s little office. Still up high, although nowhere near as high as the apartment had been, most of Hampstead and surrounding regions could be seen out of the large floor to ceiling window. Robert Stirling held the document in his hand that signified his purchase of No.122 Swiss Cottage House and it was dated the fifteenth of May 2061. He was feeling quite pleased with himself having just obtained six percent discount on the asking price for the apartment but there was a nagging feeling of everything not being quite right still lurking in one corner of his mind.
‘I think you’ll be very happy here,’ Henson was saying.
‘Perhaps, yes,’ Robert replied smiling politely, ‘but I shall miss my little house very much. I am most contented there.’
‘I think you’ll be most contented here after a short period of adjustment,’ said Henson diplomatically.
‘I won’t have my little garden though.’
Henson sympathised, told Robert he understood how he felt but then went on at length about the amount of unused space that individual houses had taken up in the distant past and all the available parkland and green spaces we had now and then there was the question of feeding in and linking up all the modern services; why now, did Robert not realise that just one main cable set up and programmed all the heating, lighting, automated functions and virtually everything for all the apartments in this block we are now sitting in? Robert did not, he thought gloomily, preferring not to think about it but, having had to face what he considered amounted to forced eviction from his house, a home he had made for himself and lived in for nearly ten years, he now had to come to terms with it. Of course the government agency had granted a payment that enabled him to buy his new apartment and it was generous, above what he knew his house to be worth in the old days; it was just the inevitability of moving and the lack of any semblance of freedom of choice and movement that irked him.
‘When is your house being demolished?’ asked Henson suddenly, momentarily forgetting his previous diplomacy.
Robert winced, took out his mini-pad, put on his glasses and keyed in a question. ‘Two weeks today, they hope although the demolition order isn’t through yet.’
‘And when------’ began Henson but Robert cut him short.
‘The day before?’
‘No problem,’ Henson said smiling sanguinely, ‘your government mortgage transfer is all approved and in order, I see no reason----’ and his voice tailed off to silence.
After making arrangements to send his few personal belongings and moveable items of furniture, Robert shook hands with the house agent and departed. Down in the street it was even hotter than earlier and the sun scorched everything mercilessly. In the parking area he was surprised to see a small, blue glide car and sitting behind the wheel a young woman with auburn hair who looked vaguely familiar. It now seemed certain to him that she had followed him from the television offices and he felt more than a little uncomfortable. Should he confront her, here and now and demand to know why she had been following him all morning? She could deny it, he thought, dig her heels in and accuse him of trying to pick her up and anyway he couldn’t prove anything, could he? Still in a state of uncertainty he walked right past her, got into his own glide and after pressing the ‘drive’ button, purred away out of the parking lot. Robert went out on a circuitous route round Hampstead, out past the hospital and then doubled back along the road he had just left. No sign of the little car. He looked at the time gleaming from phosphorescent figures on his dashboard and realised he would need to grab a bite to eat and head back to the studio to begin filming. He parked the glide in a wide road with a small restaurant on one side and a plush cinema on the other. Robert glanced over at the picture house where there was a choice of films offering South Sea Island Paradise--A jet trip out and a sea voyage home with a tour of the glorious islands in Spectrasonic wrap around screen, full dimensional sound with appropriate scents and odours wafting round the auditorium. Screen 2 was offering A Golf, Tennis and travel tour of South America with, as Robert stopped reading and remarked aloud as he looked, ‘all the boring trimmings.’ There were five other screens but he did not trouble to investigate their programmes, being familiar with the type of thing always on offer. He would have liked to see a modern film with a dramatic plot and actors and become engrossed as he followed the adventures of the protagonists and, with the aid of modern three dimensional wrap around film, obtained a sense of following them around on their own ground and moving right into their buildings to observe every move and listen enthralled to every piece of dialogue. He remembered seeing such films as a young man round about 2045. He had revelled in the sense of being there, right in the midst of the action, sometimes even checking his shoes to see if they were wet with sea water after a sequence in a film where the main characters were setting off from a beach in a dingy and the waves seemed to come up and wash over your feet as you sat there in the cinema. Then the scene would fade and you sat very still, suddenly aware of the carpet under your feet in the cinema and you were back to reality for an instant before being swept up into the next sequence; a plush hotel foyer perhaps where you followed the main male character through the sliding glass doors and up to reception with three dimensional film actor people all around you. It was all crazy illusion brought about by advanced three dimensional images with giant screens that now wrapped around two thirds of the cinema auditoriums but Robert had loved the sense of being there and sharing in the adventures of the characters in the films. It was an illusion he wanted to sense again, desperately, not just riding on horseback through a dense, richly coloured forest or flying over a range of mountains or hurtling down a ski slope with ice and snow flying all over the place. Those illusions were real enough and exciting enough the first two hundred times you saw them but Robert wanted more. It was not to be, he thought to himself ruefully, it was well known now that the True Blue Party regarded any form of fiction as dangerous and subversive. They constantly preached their doctrine of healthy lives, comprising health food, exercise, hard work for a continuing bright economy and a promise that they would maintain and uphold human rights for every citizen no matter how young, old, healthy or infirm. But they had gradually purged the theatres, cinemas and even television of dramatic fictional content, claiming that it depicted gross indecency, excessive or even undesirably passive, violence, unpleasant and undesirable characters and the long term creation of desires and longings in people for attainments that they could never realise. Robert could dimly remember seeing a broadcast on television, oh it must have been twenty five years or more ago, when Michael Carrington, Chief Minister of the True Blue Party, had promised a clean, crime free, civilised and happy future for the people of Britain with bright, open, healthy entertainment in many and various forms but excluding subversive and obnoxious fiction and drama. That had also been the time, Robert dimly recalled, when the minister promised the abolition of all prisons and new ‘Correction Centres’ or, as they came to be called, Rehabilitation Centres; places where criminals would be required to work a full eight hour day being trained and then producing and making goods, under strict supervision which would help to boost the economy after years of stagnation and debilitating recessions. No criminal would receive a penny in monetary reward, the hard work would be their punishment and their contribution to society for their various misdemeanors but in the evenings and weekends they would have every luxury in terms of bedrooms with music systems and television screens, good food, indoor game facilities and opportunities for supervised sport and outdoor activities. ‘We will maintain and promote,’ the minister had said, ‘the human rights of every citizen, even those who have fallen from grace and committed heinous crimes.’
There was no denying the huge boost it had given the economy once the new centres had been converted and became operative, Robert mused. It was also, he recalled, the last time Michael Carrington had been seen in public or on television although every law passed and every government edict carried his signature.
Robert felt beads of hot perspiration burning his forehead and realised that he had been sitting in his glide for some minutes looking at the cinema and reflecting on the distant past and had turned off his ignition and his air conditioning. He mopped his bow with a handkerchief and saw with astonishment a little blue bubble glide come sailing past him, almost silently except for a rush of hot air and some tyre noise. There she was, in the driving seat, the same young woman with auburn hair and was that a slight smile on what he had to admit was a very attractive young face? A pang of fear shot through him again and momentarily gripped his intestines. If somebody was following him and observing him over more than two hours there must be a reason. He sighed, admonished himself for over dramatising a situation that probably had a very simple explanation, got out of his glide and walked over to the little restaurant and went in. He found a seat at the counter which was long and fitted with enough space for a table in front of every customer, looked up at the electronic menu and pressed the soft buttons numbered 5 and 14. A grill at the end furthest away from where he sat opened up slowly with a slight whir and a tray came up with utensils, napkins, condiments, glass and plate. He arranged them in order of use in front of him and when a green light lit up on the menu directly in front of him he took out his mini pad and keyed in a payment to Herbert’s Food Chain. Shortly afterwards a plate containing three strips of beef substitute on crisp rye biscuit and a glass of orange juice came slowly along the conveyor belt at the far end of the counter and moved slowly towards him. A man about three places along from him put out a hand to retrieve the plate mistakenly thinking it was his order but a red light on the menu board above him began flashing and a siren like sound went on for half a minute. As the food and drink reached Robert a green light flashed intermittently above him and he smiled, reached out to take his lunch and began to eat slowly, looking thoughtful