Sunday, July 29, 2012

Put Your Money Where Your Mouse Is



“If you like it, then you shoulda put a grand on it.” 

That’s the thinking behind my new project. 

For £1000 upfront, I will work for any individual or business for a month and, at the end of that period, if you don’t feel you have had your money’s worth, I will offer a full refund – or you can employ me.
    
Why am I doing this? 

I am tired of seeing sloppily written press releases and marketing information. 

Tired of seeing companies fork out thousands of pounds for something that a smart journalist could sort out in a lot less time and for a lot less money. 

Tired of seeing grammatical errors, poor punctuation and little adherence to writing quality almost everywhere I look.
    
We are living in the Golden Age of Mediocrity. 

Standards have fallen and continue to fall, on a daily basis, in pursuit of promoting celebrity – no matter how shallow – at all costs.
   
So, I can write copy, proof read, come up with great slogans, promote your product or business in the social networking marketplace . . . No job too big or too small, as they say. 

Content is all. 

How do you make yourself stand out in an overcrowded marketplace? That is the question.
    
And I believe I can help. 

So put your money where your mouse is and contact me at jacistephen@gmail.com. 

And Retweet etc. to all your followers,  please.
  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Yer Bike! What the Tour de France Teaches Us


The Champs Elysees is suddenly a boulevard without pavement, as thousands gather to welcome the riders of the Tour de France as they enter Paris on the last day of their gruelling three weeks.
   
 I have managed to bag what was, literally, the very last ticket in a grandstand seat, and I am excited beyond belief. Unless he crashes, Bradley Wiggins will be the first British man to win the race, and I will be able to say ‘I was there.’
  
 I have been coming to Paris for the end of the Tour de France for ten years, and I love it. I am not, however, what you would call a keen cyclist. The mountain bike I bought five years ago, after a particularly enjoyable end of July day in Paris, hasn’t even seen the hill at the end of my road, much less thought about the Pyranees. I have put three cycle helmets in the bin, each rotten with lack of use and old age. I shout at inconsiderate cyclists from my car as they take up half the road and ignore the Highway Code to which car engines are slavishly subjected.
    
But the Tour de France. Oh, yes. Every year, these extraordinary athletes take my breath away with their stamina and determination, and it is an unbelievably beautiful, moving moment, when they arrive in this great city. The riders’ emotional as well as physical stamina, permeates the air; you feel their sense of achievement at the very core of your being; your heart soars. This is it. They have made it. Relief. Celebration. Joy. Every time, I cry.
    
And now, here I am, for the first time, not five deep on the Champs Elysees, straining for a glimpse of the yellow jersey, but with a ringside seat, and I am already crying.
    
The Tour de France is, for me, not only a magnificent spectacle, but a great sporting metaphor; a narrative that spells out how we would all, ideally, like our lives to pan out - honing a skill to perfection, developing the discipline with which to achieve that, working hard to fulfil your individual potential, while also recognising the importance of being part of a team and supporting your fellow man. It is a sublime example of the importance of competitive sport in character building.
    
Political correctness has all but wiped the importance of competitive sport from our psyche. Every child must now be regarded as good as the next, part of a team at the expense of individual glory. But while our sports men and women achieve great things on the world stage, there is still, in our British DNA, something that celebrates losing more than success. Andy Murray. English football. Rugby tests against southern hemisphere teams. We lack a fundamental belief that is down to the fact that we have lost our competitive spirit.
    
Most of us have memories about standing in a line on the school playing field, as the “in” crowd, during games lessons, chose teams. I was never selected as one of the choosers and, being small and never part of any clique, was always at the bottom of the barrel when it came to selection. The horror of being among the final three, and then, the relief at my name being called out and knowing that I was not the very last dreg lives with me to this day. Every time, I would try to prove myself, by running faster, scoring more goals, jumping more hurdles – yet it made no difference to selection next time around. I just wasn’t one of the gang. Even Mrs Davies, head of Games, pulled me aside one day after I had scored three goals in a hockey game and said: “You are too competitive.” I avoided every single games lesson after that.
  
 I am, and always have been, very competitive. What’s the point of being any different? Yet I was brought up with the adage “Don’t hang your hat higher than you can reach”. I never wanted to be that kind of person. Hang it high and, if you can’t reach it, find the means by which you will be able to, has always been my philosophy. Jump. Stand on a box. Ask someone to give you a leg up. Nothing is ever too high, or too out of reach: you just have to find the means of getting there.
   
 Friday sees the start of the Olympics in London, when athletes from around the world come together to try to prove themselves better than their competitors. It’s what they do every day of their lives, but, every four years, they have the chance to really rub everyone’s noses in their superior sporting prowess.
    
Never has there been a better moment to celebrate the importance of competition. We win some, we lose some; we laugh and we cry; sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re bad. As Shakespeare said: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Sport is about the achievement of greatness. It invariably comes at a cost, but pushing yourself to the best of your ability is something to encourage.
  
 We are, sadly, living in the golden age of mediocrity, where cheap reality television can make stars of people whose only achievement is their ability to pander to the lowest common denominator.
    
The Tour de France is the very antithesis of that: it not only a great event, it is inspirational, compelling television that takes your breath away as you watch people at the very top of their game, striving with every fibre of their being to be even better. Hanging their hat high, reaching for it, and hanging it higher again. For the Sky team that gave ultimate glory to Bradley Wiggins, there was never any limit.
    
The power of the individual, the importance of teamwork; strength, stamina, determination, hard work. I am sitting on the Champs Elysees as the yellow jersey of Wiggins grows from a spec in the distance to a perfect manifestation of truly great human achievement. 

And I can only weep in awe.      
  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Superstar - I Don't Know How to Love It


I don’t know how to love it
What to do, how it can move me.
It’s been changed, yes really changed.
In these past few days, when I’ve seen the show,
It seems like something low.
I don’t know how to take it,
I don’t see why it unmoves me.
It’s a show. It’s just a show.
And I’ve seen so many shows before
In very many ways.
It’s just one more.
Should I bring it down?
Should I scream and shout?
Should I speak of doubt,
Let my feelings out?
I never thought I’d come to this.
What’s it all about?
Don’t you think it rather funny
My remote’s in this position?
It’s the one that’s always been
So calm, so cool, no viewer’s fool,
Ruining every show
It scares me so.
(I never thought I’d come to this.
What’s it all about?)
Yet, if I said I loved it,
I’d be wrong, I’d be frightened.
I couldn’t cope, just couldn’t cope.
I’d turn my head, I’d bash the screen.
I wouldn’t want to know.
It scares me so.
I want it NO
I want it NO

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Leaving Home for Judge Alex


Yes, the constant rain in the UK has finally got to me, and having sat through – and enjoyed – Euro 2012 and Wimbledon, I am making my getaway before the Olympics, which has already bored me to tears (and that’s just the torch-bearing).
There is so much that I still miss about LA – and not just the weather. I miss the daily walk to the gym, sunsets over the Pacific while nursing a frozen Margarita, and I specially miss my 2pm appointment with Judge Alex.
No, that’s not a legal requirement with an ankle bracelet, but Judge Alex’s courtroom TV show that was my weekday lunchtime and a programme for which I grieve on a daily basis, sobbing into my beer at 10 pm British time and reminiscing about where I would be at 2pm in LA.
It hasn’t been all bad since returning to the UK, and much as I moan about aspects of Cardiff in South Wales, I still believe it is a wonderful city. As I bid farewell (again), here are 10 reasons why it is still good not only to be Welsh but to live here:-
1.    The Millennium Stadium. One of the greatest sports stadiums in the world. Its proximity to the city centre makes it a joy for fans arriving by train, and I have never met anyone who hasn’t loved the experience of being there.
2.    The Welsh rugby team. They may have lost all their Tests in Australia, but this vibrant team did us proud in the World Cup in New Zealand – both as players and ambassadors for our country.
3.    The Apple Store in St David’s 2. Easily the best and most knowledgeable staff of any Apple store I have ever visited.
4.    Cardiff Bay. On a sunny day, there is no better place to be in the city.
5.    Premier Cabs. By far the best taxi service. Clean cars, pleasant drivers, and you never feel less than 100% safe in them. They are 99.9% reliable, too.
6.    Café Citta in Church Place and The Cinnamon Tree in King’s Road - my two favourite places to eat. Great food, great service. Would that anywhere else came close.
7.    Pontcanna Fields, where I used to sit under trees with my books as a student, and which still give me pleasure over 30 years on.
8.    Dave’s Monday night quiz in the Butcher’s Arms in Llandaff. The best quiz in town, in which everyone’s a winner. It’s always packed and it’s a great atmosphere – enormous fun, as quizzes are meant to be.
9.    The St David’s Hotel Spa. Streets above every other health club and right next door to the hotel’s Tides, a really cool bar.
10.  Last but not least: my wonderful friends, many of whom I have known for decades. I am blessed in knowing kind, funny people, who are always there for me. 
 . . . and 10 reasons who I’ll be glad to get away again:-
1.    The weather. I don’t ever remember seeing so much rain, and after living in LA for the most part of two and a half years, waking every morning to blue skies, I can now barely drag myself out of bed in the morning.
2.    The appalling service in restaurants and bars. In a five-star hotel, if I say the wine is corked, I don’t expect the bar staff to hold the glass up to the light and say “I can’t see any cork in it”. I don’t expect them to argue with me if I say that champagne is flat. And I specially don’t want to do battle if I say that my food is cold and am told that it was hot when it left the kitchen. Yes, I am sure it was; leaving it on the sidelines for 10 minutes is what kills it.
3.    Staff with eyebrow, mouth or tongue piercings. I don’t want to be served by people rolling a silver ball around in their mouths – especially in five-star establishments. It’s fine for a night out with your mates, but in the service industry it smacks of a lack of respect for your customers.
4.    The really bad music in Brains establishments. The Maltsters in Llandaff would be a joy, were it not for the racket that is fed automatically by the brewery that has less taste than its beer (in my non-beer drinking opinion).
5.    Cardiff Airport which, with the departure of BMI Baby, no longer flies to anywhere I want to go. Losing the Malaga run means trekking over to Bristol, which I hate.
6.    The traffic. I’m not advocating a return to the horse and cart, but the congestion on the outskirts of the city centre means that it now takes roughly five times as long as it did to get anywhere than it did just a couple of years ago.
7.    The filthy pavements. After LA (and in Beverly Hills, you could eat off the sidewalk), the appalling mess on our streets disgusts me. Fast food packets, cigarette ends, overflowing bins – visitors from northern California must think they have arrived in a Third World country.
8.    The doom and gloom of most people, everywhere. Times are tough, I know, but negativity seems to be built into our national consciousness.
9.    Drunkenness – the national pastime. Town on a Friday and Saturday night is an embarrassment, with not only young boys but young girls being bundled into the back of police cars. Any big city on weekends, I suppose, but still a disgrace.
10.  No Judge Alex in Wales. Did I mention that? 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The God Gene Engineer


Ladies and gentlemen, we can re-build us. We have the technology. The Office of Genetic Intelligence has seen the future, and that future is truth. Today, we embark on the greatest medical adventure the world will ever know: the elimination of God.
   Ladies and gentlemen, the OGI brings you iDeus66.

They’d messed with her head, those God people. All those lies. Waking to find an empty cage and her mother and father telling her that Ted the budgie had flown away to a hotter country. Convincing her that Mij the otter in Ring of Bright Water had not been decapitated by the clumsy workman with his axe; that it was a distant cousin of Mij, whose death didn’t matter because he was a naughty otter.
   The fairground fish, Daisy and Bill; the dogs – Nancy, Jock and Poppy; Napoleon the cat; Prince the toad. All of them, she was assured, having a fun time in the pet heaven, where she, too, would one day join them in the house next door, but only if she was good.
   Christine Bryant, the most hated girl in school, who stole your hopscotch stone halfway through every game, had also been to see Ring of Bright Water and told her, the next day, that her parents had lied: that Mij was well and truly otter meat, and she grieved all over again, but thought that maybe the pet heaven would be able to put him back together.
   They took her to Sunday School for the first time one Easter, in a straw boater held in place with a piece of elastic that cut into her neck while she sang There is a Green Hill Far Away. She liked the countryside and thought that the green hill sounded as if it was quite a nice place, probably with an ice-cream van, until the bit where it said that it was where a man was crucified to save us all. She struggled with the meaning, but, in time, she learned that the crucified man had said that you couldn’t have something called sex unless you were married to the other person, and that you must never touch yourself, whatever that meant, too. He also said that if you ate your greens, he would give you more pocket money and you would get nice things if you prayed for them, although at Christmas you had to say a different kind of prayer to a man called Father Christmas, who was somehow related to the man on the cross. And if you did all these things, you would have your reward in the same place as the crucified man, who was looking after the animals; although she hoped that he wouldn’t ask her to put her finger in the holes of his hands, as he had made the people do in her Children’s Bible.
   Her fear kept her close to God – fear of repercussions, fear of punishment, fear of one day being separated from everyone she knew; but most of all, it was fear of the unknown alternative. All she had been told was that there was a place called hell that was very hot, and that the man with horns who lived there was very bad indeed - worse than the TV Daleks on Doctor Who, worse than the Cybermen - and there would be no turning back, no second chances, once you were banished to that place. So, at thirteen, she was baptised by total immersion, water filling her ears and emerging to hear the congregation singing “Praise ye the Lord, Hallelujah!” She was told that from this point on, everything would change, now that she had given her life to the Lord; but after she dried her hair and changed out of her wet white dress, she had difficulty summoning up the emotion she was told she would feel. Sipping her tea - barely warm, too weak - as the church deacons fussed around her, she was filled with nothingness; if anything, she felt as if a piece of her had been taken away, handed over on a platter like John the Baptist’s head – another picture that terrified her in the Children’s Bible. Desperate to be one of God’s Chosen People, she continued to study the Scriptures and tried to resurrect emotion in prayer, but now there was a hole where once there had been stories she believed. Then the minister who had baptised her ran off with the organist’s daughter and she decided to stop going to church.
   Still, though, she tried to stay in contact with her maker. She took Religious Education as one of her three ‘A’ Levels; she listened to Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven; she visited art galleries and tried to make sense of Blake; she sat on the beach to watch the sun go down, and the world she had been told was created by God daily filled her with wonder. Two years after she last stepped foot in a church, she went on a school trip to Venice and took a boat to the Island of the Dead, where she lit a candle in the church, giving thanks for her family and friends. But it all felt like the actions of an intruder into others’ emotions; every effort, an attempt to stir those same waves of emotion within herself, but failing. Art and beauty did not bring her closer to God; they were a constant reminder that the world was greater and more mysterious than the tales about the man in the sky; so vast and so unbearably painful to comprehend, that generations had sought to contain it under the umbrella of a supreme being, who was able to exercise control over the chaos. 
   Mary Donald finally lost her faith the day her parents died. Celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in August 2005, they had travelled to New Orleans to indulge their love of jazz. On their first ever meeting, at the Regent Ballroom in Hove, they had danced to the Syd Dean band playing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World and had always vowed to visit the city that had given birth to their beloved “Satchmo”.
   Along with over 1800 others, they lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina. They had been in the city just two days and their bodies were never found. For weeks, Mary ranted at the kind of God who could authorise such a tragedy; but then, just as suddenly as grief had struck, it was as if the light of her parents’ lives extinguished her darkness as quickly as the hurricane had their own. One morning, she woke to feel her father’s hands brushing sand from her feet, when he sat her on a wall at the beach: the sadness of the closedown of day and the now distant sea, being replaced by the comfort of warm sock; the same cool hand she felt that held her forehead over the toilet bowl when she was sick, the powerful cup of his fingers bringing stillness to her hot, trembling head. She felt the warmth of the kitchen where she grew up in the small, terraced house that echoed the sea wind, and could taste the toffee her mother decided to make as a late night treat, the sweet smell of soft brown sauce that turned to brick; and, just as clearly, the cloying scent of her mother’s Lancome face powder, the finishing touch before her parents left the house for an evening’s entertainment at the Regent; the Imperial Leather soap in her father’s cheek when she reached up to kiss him goodnight; the Chinese food they brought to her on a saucer, long after she had been put to bed, hating to leave her out of any of their treats; and waking, like a newborn bird with open beak, for its parent to jump-start its belly into life. Her stomach once more leapt with the excitement of waking on New Year’s Morning, to the whistles, sweets, and foil hats with crepe streamers her parents left at the foot of the bed after their late night out.
   They came fast, now, the memories. That’s when she knew, and she felt as if she had never been more certain of anything. This was everlasting life: the things passed on. Of course. The thoughts, the memories, the ideas, the laughter, the love. She felt high on insight. She wanted to run into the street and tell everyone of her great find. Suddenly, she felt as if she could take the hugeness of it all. This was what it was to be human, and we lived on in every word, every gesture, in every atom in which we had ever shared. William and Anne Donald were living on in everything they had ever been. As a child, she had cried when the old Dr Who transformed into the new one, but she soon forgot; he was just living on in a different body, but the old Doctor was still there. Her parents had not gone anywhere; their history was their future, the everlasting life that she, too would pass on. Yes. That was the moment that Mary Donald lost God. She was 21 years old and it was a relief, finally, to be free.
                                                                           *
The Office of Genetic Intelligence was familiar with the God gene long before the geneticist Dr Dean Hammer announced his findings to the world in 2004. The man who had one time declared that he had discovered a gene linked to homosexuality designed a 226 question survey, aimed at determining an individual’s propensity for feelings of spirituality, or willingness to believe in a supernatural phenomena. He found that those with a tendency to embrace religion shared the gene VMAT2, which was said to dictate the flow of mood-altering chemicals in the brain. His findings had been met with derision and scepticism, which mattered little to the OGI, who not only believed that they had correctly identified the God gene, but also developed the necessary technology to eradicate it. The gene, iDeus66, was, said Dr Matthew Gosling, in his introductory speech to the new recruits to the OGI in 2008, essentially a truth drug. Truth was the very antithesis of God: a truth that had no need, nor desire for the constrictions imposed by the fiction of a superior being; a truth that would annihilate mankind’s fear of the unknown; a truth that would outlive death.
   It was as a result of reading Dr Hammer’s findings, however, that Mary Donald became familiar with the work of the OGI. Just over a month after her parents’ death, and beginning a PhD at Lancaster University, she found herself surrounded by like-minded people for whom faith was an aberration of the standard genetic code. She immersed herself in Bentham, Mill and Nietzche, researching the feasibility of building a moral structure in the absence of God. Having successfully eliminated God from her own life, she concluded that a godless society would be more conducive to Bentham’s greatest happiness principle, and, she suggested, the elimination of God was not only desirable, but essential, in bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
   She had been dating fellow student Robert Mentorn for nearly three years when she completed her research in 2008. He was, by everyone’s reckoning, a brilliant student. She had fallen in love with his mind before emotion took over, and although neither of them believed in marriage, they had talked of their combined futures during their first week together, as if it was an inevitability, rather than a decision that had to be made. Mary was glad that they had never felt the need to suffer That Conversation, when one party demanded to know where “it” was going, only to be met with the other’s negative response. Like her, Robert regarded himself as an orphan; he also shared her non-belief, and this, too, brought them closer. He was the son of a preacher and had lost his mother to breast cancer the week he received his ‘A’ Level results. He was with her when she died, but could not share his father’s comfort as the grief-stricken man lay his hand on the fading glow of his wife’s forehead, assuring her that she was going to a better place. When she went, Robert knew she was gone for good. In her final breath, he could hear no relief of a soul acknowledging its final resting-place; just the echo of a door slamming shut forever. He attended the funeral, where his father stood in his own pulpit and read from the Bible – “I go to prepare a place for you.” He survived his wife by just three months and joined her in the adjoining, pre-booked plot in the crematorium. Robert did not attend the funeral. Instead, he went to the pub, where he got excessively drunk and railed against the Life Thief called God, who had stolen his parents. 
   When Mary was contacted by the OGI, she was made to sign the Official Secrets Act even before attending the interview, and on the day itself she told Robert that she had decided to become a teacher and was attending an interview for a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. She would never see him again. Six weeks before her first interview, he threw himself off the tower they called Suicide Watch on the university campus. He left her a note: “From nothing I came, and to nothingness I return. Be happy.” She Googled the phrase to check the quotation and glean what might have been his thoughts when he wrote it, but it seemed it had been his original work. His mother’s sister arranged the funeral, even though Mary tried to convince her that it was not what Robert would have wanted. She called Mary a bitch and ordered her to stay away from the church. Instead, Mary went to Lake Windermere for the day and tried to remember Robert’s voice, but it was already gone.
   For the first time in three years, she prayed or, as she preferred to call it, issued a summons: a summons to whatever power the universe held, to deliver the sound of his voice one more time. Occasionally, she caught a sense of him and wished she believed, so that she could picture him tucked into God’s pocket, the way she had remembered each of her grandparents when they died. One night, she fell to her knees and begged God to come back into her life, remembering: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you.” She asked. She felt her heart beating in the silence. She just didn’t have the God gene.
   She stayed in Lancaster and vowed to concentrate on her work and prepare for her forthcoming interview with the OGI. She bought a new red outfit and matching shoes, as if marking, with a big red tick, her new life. 
   The office was an unprepossessing building on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Moors and its existence was unknown to all but the select group of young scientists hand-picked to work there. Dr Matthew Gosling, who personally collected her from Leeds station, engaged in little small talk en route to the office, but he did say that they had been following her progress for some years and had, through a source he could not name, been made aware of her thesis. Mary was flattered. She assumed that nobody, apart from a few lecturers, would ever see what she regarded, in her best moments, as a small triumph in her circle’s escalating war on God; the knowledge that her work had made it beyond the university walls suddenly made her feel very grown-up.
   It was to be the first of 23 interviews. Mary talked about her upbringing, her parents, her schooling, her love life, and, it seemed, everything she had ever thought about anything. She talked about Robert. About how, following his death, little by little, but in a mere matter of weeks, memories defeated pain once more, just as they had when she lost her parents. She told them about the book she was writing: Everlasting, which challenged the church’s traditional concept about eternal life. And at no time was she allowed to, and nor did she, breathe a word about what took place during these clandestine meetings. It was clear that the absence of any living relative or emotional tie in her life had been a factor in her selection, for nothing less than total dedication to the cause was, said Dr Gosling, of utmost importance.
   She assured them of her independence and her devotion to scientific truth and the pursuit of happiness, based on the God elimination principles that had been central to her studies. On her 21st birthday, she received a call to say that her application to the OGI had been successful and they looked forward to welcoming her to the organisation. She packed a small case filled mostly with books and left for Leeds station where, as he had on every other occasion, Dr Gosling met her. She did not know, on December 12th 2008, that it would be three years before she saw the outside world again.
                    *
Andrew Tappen had been at the Wiltshire Daily News just one week when he landed the big one in January 1998. Two pigs, siblings named Butch and Sundance, had gone on the run from an abbatoir in Malmesbury, his home town. During their week on the run, they had managed to squeeze through a fence, swim the River Avon and take up residence in some neighbouring gardens. When they were finally found, it was Andrew’s job to try to buy the pigs to save them from slaughter, but his small paper did not have the funds of the national Daily Mail, which secured the animals from owner Dijulio, in return for exclusive rights to their story.
   Lost dogs, cats stuck up trees, sick cows - no minor animal story escaped his paper. “This story’s got legs,” his editor would call across the news-room. “One for you, Andrew.”
   When it wasn’t animals that were being spotted across the county, it was Jesus. Every day, readers sent in photographs of their latest sighting of a bearded man appearing in the most mundane of places. A slice of toast, a bathroom tile, a frying-pan – it seemed there was no place too humble for the Lord to make his presence felt in people’s lives.
   On June 26th 2008, Andrew would be marking ten years on the paper. He had celebrated his 30th birthday just before Christmas and did not need this second reminder of how life was passing him by. But his editor insisted on throwing a party for his loyal employee, and he was forced to grin and bear it as his colleagues catalogued his dubious record of trivial story-gathering.
   It was on Facebook that he began to follow the trail that would change his life.
                     *
Mary Donald was loving her work. She had not yet been assigned to any laboratory tasks, but under Dr Gosling’s tutelage was able to concentrate fully on her work and, inside the dark confines of the OGI, able to dispel thoughts of the life she had once had with Robert on the other side. It was, she thought, like her own version of heaven and hell: the outside world, with its wars and pain and suffering and, inside the OGI, a world of dedicated men and women, committed only to the pursuit of happiness.
   She knew little of how far the OGI had come with its development of iDeus66; her job was to collate names and addresses, separating them according to age, profession and religion. Marked for special attention were young women without children, and these went into a computer file marked Priority; only Dr Gosling and his colleague, Dr Annabel Winters, could access the file with a secret code, and Mary learned that you did not ask questions of your superiors, no matter how curious you might be about any aspect of the operation.
   It was the screams that woke her in the night. Loud, sobbing, female screams that made the walls tremble in her small bedroom in the OGI’s living quarters. She could not locate exactly where they were coming from, and when she first heard them she thought that she must be dreaming. She put them down to an over-active imagination and her grief at the loss of Robert, but one night she put on her dressing gown to try to track them down.
   They appeared to be coming from a room below the main building, but as all areas were locked at night, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact source. On the mornings that followed the screams, Mary watched her colleagues closely, for the tiniest sign of something that might give away the previous night’s activity; if they knew anything, they were not showing it.
   “Dr Gosling,” she said, one morning, when she felt brave. “I’m having a problem sleeping; there appear to be some very strange noises that I can’t quite identify.” She had been at the OGI for nearly two years and was hoping she had proved her loyalty.
   Dr Gosling said just four words: “Everything in good time.”
   That night, she heard the screams again and, shortly after they began, there was a knock on the door. She answered it to find Dr Gosling and Dr Winters standing there, and after ordering her to get dressed, indicated that she follow them.
   As they opened and re-locked each door, the screaming grew louder until, at the final door, it suddenly stopped. Mary found herself in a laboratory, although not one of the kind with which she was familiar, as there were more computer screens than she had ever seen in one room. In the far corner, she made out what looked like a body, handcuffed to the railing of an old-fashioned hospital bed. A man she had not seen before was standing close by, so still, that Mary wondered if he might be a waxwork. This, explained Dr Gosling, is the EGL, and it is where the creation that is the elimination of God begins.
                        *
“Jenna Crewe has invited you to be her friend on Facebook.”
   Andrew Tappen remembered Jenna Crewe. They had started on the Wiltshire Daily News together, but Jenna had quickly moved up the Fleet Street ladder. Not for her the two-bit stories about mobile sausage escapees.
   Jenna was returning home for a family visit and wondered if they might meet up. It was quickly arranged and they met at a pub called the Potting Shed in Crudwell.
   A decade on, and over a bottle of Shiraz, they talked easily. Jenna was now freelancing, but there was something on her mind.
   “Do you remember Matthew Gosling?” she asked. Matthew, Andrew recalled, had been thrown out of medical school for unethical conduct.
   “Yes, of course. Strange business. We tried to do a story on him but got nowhere.”
   Jenna placed a journal on the table, open at page six. “Take a look at this.”
   It was an article by Matthew Gosling, titled Goodbye, God . . . It Wasn’t Nice Knowing You. It talked about the joy of losing his faith and his mission to save the rest of the world from what he called “the God lie”. Science, he said, was the only truth, and had, within its grasp, the means to purify mankind by the removal of the errant God gene.
   “Wow,” said Andrew. “He’s really lost it. Where’s he working now?”
   “That’s just it. Nobody really knows. There was a Facebook group supporting his theories, but it’s now a cold trail. If you try to contact any of the members, you get nowhere, and not just on Facebook. They’ve vanished. All of them. Students, mainly. I just thought it might be one for you.”
   “Did any of them own a horse?”
   Jenna looked confused.
   “Sorry, it’s just my name is never first in the frame when the political intrigue stories come up in conference.”
   “I thought maybe we could work on it together, do a bit of digging.”
   “Woodward and Bernstein.”
   “Little and Large, more like.” It was an unwelcome reminder that, at six feet tall, Jenna, who would never look at any man under six three, would never be interested in Andrew’s seventy inches. Sometimes, God could be very cruel.
                      *
The God gene elimination process is, in essence, no different from that of the homologous recombination technique and, once the errant gene has been targeted and isolated, iDeus66 can destroy it without harming the foetus in any way. To treat more well-established genes, particularly those in adults over the age of 30, the procedure is more complicated, as the gene can prove resistant and, even, multiply itself, but there is every evidence to suggest that by the end of the century, the process of permanent god gene targeting will be standard procedure in our hospitals.
   Dr Gosling told Mary that she was ready to begin working in the laboratory, and as she finished reading her mentor’s paper she realised that she had inadvertently stumbled upon what might turn out to be the most important scientific study of her generation. Maybe she would win the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Her mind started to race as she read and re-read the work. No more wars; no more imposition of religious strictures designed to bring about nothing but guilt and fear; no more lying awake at night, worrying about what happens when you die. No. More. God.
   She could not sleep that night, and even when she heard the screams, she knew that the young mothers would one day be glad of the gene cleansing they had been privileged to experience at the OGI; in the long run, it would make their lives easier, even if they didn’t know it yet; it would certainly make the lives of their children easier.
   When she finally closed her eyes and fell asleep, she dreamed of her dead parents for the first time. They were not sitting at dining tables on fluffy clouds, surrounded by famous people; they were lying still, at the bottom of the sea, but large fish had started to eat at their bodies, starting with their eyes. At the end of the dream, there was nothing left of either of them. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Water to water. When she woke, she cried, because she missed them. She missed Robert.
                       *
The leads on Matthew Gosling went cold in Yorkshire in 2004, but Andrew Tappen and and Jenna Crewe were persistent in their research. The doctor had been spotted a number of times in Leeds during the early part of 2008, but only at bus stops, railway stations and the odd café. They contacted old friends who might know his whereabouts; they visited his parents, his sister, his old employers, but he really seemed to have disappeared. They visited Lancaster University, where Mary Donald was known to have met him during her time at university there. They knew this because her boyfriend, Robert Mentorn, had written about it in his diaries. She told him she had an interview for a teacher-training course, but he found her diary and, suspecting she had not been telling the truth, read it. She had left all his belongings when she suddenly left, they said, but they had held on to them in case she ever decided to return, and it seemed heartless to throw away what were his only real remains.
   It was a cold December morning when Andrew and Jenna set off for the OGI. It was easy to find. Mary had detailed every step of her journey in her own diary, and Robert, for reasons of his own, had meticulously reported every detail in his. There was no obvious means of entry or exit, and they walked for half an hour before finding something that looked as if might lead to a main reception area. They lay on the ground behind a low concrete wall when they saw a car approach and a man emerge with a young woman. She seemed to be struggling to walk, and although Andrew’s instinct was to run to offer help, he resisted the temptation. They walked around the building once more, and when a light came on downstairs, in what appeared to be an annexe, they crept over to try to look inside.
   What they saw was Mary Donald, sitting upright, but rocking back and fore on her bed. They could not hear a sound through the obviously heavy glass, but they could see, from the shape of her contorted body, that she was sobbing convulsively. Jenna tried to get a clearer view, but the window was too high even for her, and so Andrew knelt on all fours to enable her to stand on his back. When they finally caught Mary’s attention, they said it was like looking at someone who had been eating nothing but darkness all her life.
   This manifestation of the other side, arriving so suddenly at her inner sanctum, induced in Mary a horror of the kind she remembered when they told her that her parents were never coming home. She beckoned to the face to go away, mouthing the words in silence, for fear of being caught in collusion with the outside world from which she was denied access. Finally, the face disappeared, but she knew it would be back.
   “We have to do something,” said Jenna. “What is this place?”
   “Warehouse of the Body Snatchers, if you ask me,” said Andrew. “Come on, let’s go.”
   The couple were surrounded before they even reached their car. Six men, all armed, pointed guns at them and, in their midst, stood Matthew Gosling. Andrew tried to make light of the situation and held out his hand. “Had a bit of trouble tracking you down on Facebook,” he smiled, but there was no response.
   “Take them inside,” said Dr Gosling.
   Locked door after locked door, and the pair finally arrived at the laboratory where Mary had first witnessed the iDeus66 experiments.
   Handcuffed to security rails on opposite sides of the room, they stared at Gosling, awaiting his next move.
   “Where do you stand on God?” he asked.
   “Sorry?” Andrew and Jenna spoke in unison.
   “Believers, or non-believers?”
   “Right now, I think I must be on the side of the believers, because I’m praying really hard,” said Andrew. Jenna wished he would stop trying to be a comedian and acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.
   Had events not taken the turn they did, the doctor would have told them what he had learned: that there was no God. He would have asked them to imagine the freedom, if they had known, once and for all, that it wasn’t true, any of it. Would it not have been a welcome release? And an end to war, with nations embracing nations? He could have taught them how to live in every single moment, sure of its passing forever. To live without God was to live without fear, to be happy: knowing, completely, that this was it. That was his discovery. What sane person would not grasp the opportunity to eliminate the faulty gene that had corrupted their very existence since the beginning of time? He had seen the power of the godless master race, and it was good.
                        *
Mary lay on her bed and listened for the familiar sound of new incumbents. She knew that the face at the window would not have managed to get away; nobody ever did. She dressed and made her way to the lab. Now that she had her own set of keys, it was an easy journey to make.
   She had never seen Andrew and Jenna before but knew, as she had with every arrival, that they were not there by choice. The guards had returned to their posts outside, and she had to think fast. She sensed that the couple suspected she might be their friend; they certainly knew she was their only hope, and they begged her with their eyes.
   The supply of iDeus66 Mary threw in Dr Gosling’s face stunned him momentarily and gave her time to snatch the syringe they used to stun newcomers resistant to the research experiment. She had to be quick to retrieve the keys for the handcuffs, but when the couple were free, they followed Mary back through the corridor of doors she knew so well. But each way they turned, they could hear the running footfall of another guard – Gosling had clearly managed to hit the emergency button before falling to the ground. Without their mobile phones, which had been taken from them when they were captured, they had no means of alerting anyone to come to their assistance, and so the threesome just kept running and running, and praying. Andrew thought that if this were ET, they would be lifted high into the sky to escape their captors, but he decided to keep his thoughts to himself.
   An explosion from the vicinity of the laboratory where they had left Gosling unconscious blew the hole in the wall that provided them with their escape route. A second explosion sent flames and smoke high into the evening sky, overpowering navy blue ribbons of dusk, splitting the building in two like the Red Sea get-out provided for Moses to lead God’s people to the Promised Land. Matthew Gosling’s body was unrecognisable when they took it from the inferno in which he had perished, along with iDeus66. He had seen 9/11 and the Iraq War, he had seen the war in Afghanistan, and he had known that the elimination of God could have prevented them all. It would have to be enough for him, for now; but there was a time for everything.
                           *
On her 100th birthday, Mary Donald gave thanks to God for her life. But it wasn’t God, just the thing she needed to give thanks to because it was bigger than her. Call it God, a god, power, energy, the universe. If people chose to give it a name, she no longer cared; it was of no real consequence; if they needed to believe that there was more to come, it was not her job to burst their bubbles. And who was she to say that any of them were right – or wrong?
   Her life had been filled with love. Two devoted husbands, three children, six grand-children, and friends of over, in some cases, sixty years’ standing. She counted Andrew and Jenna, until their deaths, among her closest. Sometimes, she heard their voices, but knew it was only the wind. Still, sometimes she liked to pretend otherwise.
   She had published books, too, including – and her personal favourite – No God, No Art? The argument questioned whether the greatest music, art and literature was born of the need to believe in a superior being, irrespective of whether that being was real or not. Sometimes you needed certainty, and sometimes you needed belief. She had seen both sides of the wall and no longer feared either.
   It was a truth, of sorts, and she had been happy. Within a month she knew she would be dead, but it no longer worried her what that meant. The last thing she would remember hearing, if ever she woke, would be the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major.
                      *
   Dr Tam Gosling, of The Royal Institute of Genetic Engineering, paid tribute, in the annual address to the Worldwide United Genetics conference, to the scientists behind the discovery of iDeus66, but Mary’s name was not among them. It was, he said, as had been predicted by Dr Matthew Gosling, the greatest scientific discovery of their age; his great grandfather would have been proud.
   Dr Tam Gosling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2084.