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Maria McCarthy
Maria McCarthy

Maria writes short stories and poetry. Her first full collection of poetry, Strange Fruits, is published by Cultured Llama and WordAid. She has recently completed a collection of linked short stories. She has been published in The Frogmore Papers, Equinox, 14, in the Night Train anthologies (University of Kent), and has self-published two collections of prose and poetry: 'Learning to be English' and 'Nothing But'. She has also written and broadcast as a columnist for Radio 4's 'Home Truths' (as Maria Bradley). She has an MA in Creative Writing  from the University of Kent. She writes, and occasionally teaches, in a shed at the bottom of her garden.


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How Beautiful


Ed touched two fingers on the entry screen, but the door remained shut. He wiped his fingers on his jeans, and tried again. Red neon letters flashed ACCESS DENIED. He sighed; technology, as advanced as it was, still needed turning off and back on again sometimes. He swiped the house icon on his tablet, but the screen flashed the same as the entry panel by the door: ACCESS DENIED.

          He signalled to the uniformed man beyond the glass door by raising his tablet and pointing to the words on the screen. The man was reclining in a chair behind a desk, tipped as far as you could an ergonomic tip-proof chair, in the manner of an under-worked sheriff in an old Western movie, his peaked cap over his eyes. The heels of his scuffed cowboy boots were up on the desk. He dropped his feet to the floor, and the chair brought him upright. He drew the cap back on his head, and spoke into a microphone. ‘The screen is on your left.’

          Ed tried as hard as he could to signal back: waved a finger, shook his head. The grille where the man’s voice came out was too high and Ed’s voice too weak to reach it. The man shrugged his shoulders and walked to the door. He opened it to the electronic equivalent of a door being stopped by a security chain. ‘What’s the problem, Sir?’ He surveyed Ed, frown lines on his forehead. Ed swiped the house icon on his tablet. ACCESS DENIED flashed red. The man harrumphed, opened the door, stepped outside and closed it again, then tried his own fingers on the entry panel by the door. PROCEED flashed in green, accompanied by the familiar three-toned chime. He stopped the door opening all the way with a series of two, three and one-fingered taps on the panel. The door reset to security-chain.

          ‘Your access has been denied,’ he said.

          Ed tried to find a polite way of saying, ‘No shit, Sherlock’. He had the suspicion that men in uniforms didn’t get sarcasm, most of all those who wore cowboy boots and tipped their chairs like Wild West sheriffs. Instead he said, ‘Could you tell me why?’

          ‘Sorry lad; couldn’t get that, say again.’

          Ed sighed and wrote the words on his tablet, then offered it to Mr Wild West. The man pressed the house icon. ‘It says access denied.’

          ‘I know that; can you tell me why?’

          ‘Sorry, couldn’t understand that either. Tell you what, I’ll try and find out why, if you like.’ Ed pursed his lips and breathed out through his nostrils. He nodded. The man performed a three- two- one-fingered passcode on Ed’s tablet, pressed one thing and another, his brow furrowed. ‘Your access is denied,’ he said, somewhat unnecessarily, adding, ‘You’ve been reassessed and you’re no longer eligible.’

          ‘I know I’ve been reassessed, but what’s that got to do with where I live?’ Wild West looked bewildered. Ed was used to this – people who had trouble listening. He could speak a little louder, but he doubted that it would make any difference. Some people just couldn’t tune in. He remembered the card in his top pocket, and offered it to Wild West. ‘They gave me this at the validation centre, but my tablet won’t read it.’

          ‘No, didn’t get any of that. I could try reading your card, see if that tells us any more.’ He scanned the card with his wrist-reader. ‘Bernard 451 Yellow.’

          ‘Bernard?’

          ‘Yep, Bernard 451 Yellow.’ At last, Wild West had understood one word of Ed’s speech. ‘Bernard is one of the new categories.’

          ‘OK, so what do I get for being a Bernard?’

          ‘I’ll see what you get for being a Bernard, shall I?’ He looked at his wrist-reader, puffing out his cheeks as he did so: ‘Vouchers.’

          ‘I used to get money paid into my bank.’

          Wild West shook his head, then looked as if he’d had a eureka moment. ‘Money – I heard you say money. Getting better at this, aren’t I?’ Ed attempted an encouraging smile. Wild West went back to peering at the reader. ‘Yellows aren’t allowed currency. Try checking your bank balance.’ Ed tapped the £ icon on his tablet. ACCESS DENIED flashed in red letters, alternating with BERNARD 451 in yellow. ‘See, vouchers is what you’ll get,’ Wild West said. ‘Have you tried your email? They might have sent a message.’ Ed pressed the envelope icon: ACCESS DENIED.

          ‘I’ll try the back-up account…’ Ed touched the icon that showed a sheet of paper and a quill pen with an inkpot by the side. ACCESS DENIED. ‘This is ridiculous. I need to get into my apartment. I couldn’t get in round the front, that’s why I tried this door.’

          ‘Have you tried the front door?’ Wild West said. Ed decided to save his breath, and just nodded. ‘No luck?’ Wild West said. Ed shook his head. ‘ACCESS DENIED’ they said together. Wild West sniffed. ‘You’ve got a problem, my friend. Let’s take a look at your tablet. He scanned it with his wrist-reader, returned the tablet to Ed and lifted his wrist toward his mouth, cupping his hand over his ear.

          ‘Lola? Quentin here.’ Ed stifled a giggle. Quentin was not a name that went with cowboy boots. Quentin looked at him sharply. ‘Not bad, Lola, not too shabby. You?’ Ed drummed his fingers on his tablet. Every icon turned yellow, one by one – the £, the envelope, the paper, quill and inkpot - then ghosted to a pale lemon. He held it up for Quentin to look at. Quentin’s eyes narrowed. ‘I’ve got a chap here who’s getting ACCESS DENIED.’ He took Ed’s tablet. ‘Yep: Bernard 451 Yellow. Yellow, yes.’ He looked at Ed, then turned his back on him, opened the door and went inside carrying the tablet. The door closed behind him.

          ‘Hey, my tablet,’ Ed said. Quentin took a wand from beneath the desk and waved it over the screen. The blue light that flashed at the top of the device when it was active dulled, and then died. Ed shifted in his seat, pushed the reverse button on the arm of his chair, but nothing moved. He tried to shift the wheels with his hands, and looked down to see them clamped like an illegally parked car, with mini yellow clips that were rooted into slots in the pavement. ‘Hey, Quentin!’ He shouted as best he could and waved. He tried to raise the seat to standing – sometimes it helped to talk eye to eye – but that didn’t work either. Quentin continued to talk to his wrist, glancing in Ed’s direction, but not so Ed could catch his eye. His throat felt constricted and his breath came in gasps.

          A large vehicle drew up, yellow with blacked-out windows, and a woman stepped out of the driver’s door. She was wearing a helmet with a visor covering her face. Quentin came out to greet her, ensuring that the door closed behind him. ‘What’s going on?’ Ed said. Quentin remained tight-lipped. ‘Can I have my tablet back, please?’

          Quentin nodded at the woman. ‘Lola.’

          She lifted her visor. ‘Quentin,’ she said, as she moved to the front of Ed’s chair, her booted feet up against the wheels, one either side. She kicked one wheel then the other.

          ‘Hello, anyone going to tell me what’s going on?’ Ed said. It would have been easier to assert himself if he wasn’t staring into Lola’s chest. He tried to turn his head, but the impulses that helped his neck move had stopped working. Lola stepped back a little and crouched down in front of the chair. ‘Your access has been denied,’ she said.

          ‘I’m fully aware of that, thank you; obviously a malfunction with the tablet.’

          ‘I’m afraid not, Sir,’ Lola said. ‘You’ve been reassessed, and you’re…’

          ‘Yes, yes, I know, I’m a Bernard 451 Yellow. This fact has been established. So where do I get these vouchers I’m entitled to, and how do I get into my apartment? Releasing the chair would be a start.’

          ‘Ah, the vouchers,’ Quentin said. ‘Sorry about that. The vouchers are only for the first three days after assessment. They should have issued them at the validation centre.’

          ‘No vouchers?’

          ‘No vouchers, Sir, ‘Lola said. ‘You are no longer eligible.’

          Ed was getting hotter. He took a breath, and tried to tell himself there was no point getting angry; there must be some mistake. ‘OK, no vouchers, but can you get me into my apartment?’

          ‘Your apartment has been cleared, Sir,’ Lola said. She straightened up to her full height, and Ed found that he was staring into her blouson jacket again.

          ‘My cat – what about Eric, what have you done with him?’

          Lola looked offended. ‘We’re not inhuman, Sir; the cat has been rehomed.’

          ‘What about me? Where do I get rehomed? And why can’t I take Eric with me?’

          ‘The problem is, Sir, that you have been regraded.’

          Ed suppressed the urge to shout For fuck’s sake. Instead, he said, as slowly and carefully as he could manage, ‘This I know. I went to the validation centre last week. They do this once a year. There’s never any change. I get a digital stamp on my tablet, my money goes in the next Wednesday as usual, and everything’s as…’ he gestured towards his legs, ‘hunky dory as it can be.’

          Lola arched her back, straightened, and crouched down again, her face so close that Ed could smell garlic on her breath. ‘Unfortunately, Sir, the goal posts have been moved vis-à-vis validity.’

          ‘No one told me.’ He raised his voice.

          ‘Best not to, Sir; it only causes alarm.’

          ‘Well, I’m fucking alarmed now.’

          Lola flinched in synch with the F word. She closed her eyelids, and then opened them slowly. ‘The difficulty we have, Sir, is that you are now a Bernard 451 Yellow.’

          ‘I don’t care if I’m fucking canary yellow, can you please restore my tablet and release my chair?’

          Quentin moved behind the chair, his hands on Ed’s shoulders. ‘Sorry mate, no can do.’

          ‘I can appeal. I want to appeal.’ His voice was getting squeakier. ‘Take me to the validation centre. They’ll know what to do.’

          ‘It’s a question of resources, Sir,’ Lola said. ‘The authorities have their budgets. We all have to live within our budgets, Sir.’

          ‘Nothing personal, mate,’ Quentin said. ‘It won’t take long. This will help. Lola?’ He pressed down on Ed’s shoulders while Lola pulled something that looked like a pen from one of the zips on her jacket.

          ‘No! No! What the fuck…’

          Lola inserted the pen into his impulse port. ‘You’ll be nice and relaxed. Just like having a large shot of whiskey.’ His head lolled, his hands stiffened. ‘I understand it can be quite pleasurable.’ The sides of the chair closed in, tighter and tighter. He could hear the crack of his bones, yet felt no pain. Just like the way they crush a car, he thought, as if he were observing the process rather than a part of it.

          As the back of Lola’s vehicle opened, he saw them, stacked, wheels and backs and bones and limbs. He could make out a flattened ear in the spaces between the spokes of a wheel. He viewed it all with interest: how small the cubes of bodies and chairs, chairs and bodies, parts of one another, how beautiful.


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