Jasmine watches

Have you watched the first episode of the new BBC series ,Years and Years.  It is by Russel T Davies and follows a family of diverse characters over the next fifteen years. It started from the present as experienced by us and cleverly included news from the very day of broadcast – the death of Doris Day. This gave it a feeling of immediacy and reality. It quickly moved to five years in the future when things are happening (no spoilers).  The blurb suggests it is building on today’s rise of right-wing activism, the growing influence of populist politicians and international relations (Trump’s America, China, Brexit etc.). It is a worrying vision – and that’s only the first episode. A few caveats:

1  It’s only the first episode

2  It’s entertainment, so it will be dramatic (contain gay sex – it’s Russell T. Davies after all) and will be an exaggerated version of reality.

3  Futurists invariably get the future wrong – we don’t wear silver suits (not all of us anyway), or drive aircars or live in mile high apartment blocks, and we haven’t had a nuclear holocaust, yet.

Nevertheless it has picked up on a some very disturbing aspects of today. John Crace, the Guardian’s political sketch writer, attended a meeting of Farage’s Brexit party this week and came away terrified of what it portended. According to opinion polls some 30% of the voting population are intending to vote for the Brexit party in the EU elections next week. This in itself is frightening and mind-boggling. The party is Farage’s fiefdom. All candidates have sworn allegiance to him (he won’t let them off a short leash to spout ultra-right-wing vote-losing nonsense like his former pals in UKIP). Apparently you can’t join the Party to have a say in its policies because (a) it is not set up like that, and (b) it doesn’t have any policies. As before with UKIP and Leave, Farage gives no details of what Brexit means and has no plans for what to do when the UK is freed from the “tyranny of Brussels”. He is a rich, career politician who has never held any political position in the UK yet millions apparently follow his every word.  I do not understand it.

Meanwhile, the Tories are bickering amongst themselves about who will take over from May and effectively ignoring the EU elections while Labour is fighting on general election policies and ignoring Brexit in its non-campaign. OK, the EU result has no effect on the British parliament and it will still be down to MPs to come to some kind of agreement before the next Brexit deadline of October, but allowing Farage a free rein is to allow him and his hidden cronies to build up momentum towards the next meaningful election. Of course the right wing media (i.e. most of it) ignores attempts to highlight Farage’s lies and obfuscations, but Remainers are in disarray. The Lib Dems are forcibly trying to present themselves as the only Remain party when it is patently obvious that many people still do not trust them after the debacle of the coalition and the 2015 election. The Green Party have lots of support but cannot decided what is the most important topic – Brexit or climate disaster. It is the latter in the long term but unless we stop the former we will be fighting for our own survival not the Earth’s.

With the countries of the world falling one by one to authoritarian populists who are only interested in maintaining and displaying their own power, the future looks bleak.  As bleak as Years and Years? We’ll see.

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WP_20190514_12_33_09_ProI read this week that this year there will be a Tran Pride festival in London as well as the usual Pride.  This follows the furore last year when some lesbian groups tried to get trans-people excluded from the parade. It was a shocking and ugly episode of intolerance.

I have sometimes wondered why the T is in LGBT. As trans people are constantly saying – trans is about gender identity, not sex and sexuality. Of course, like everyone else, transpeople are sexual beings, but all permutations are possible and indeed, likely.  The T is there because trans people, like gay people, have in the past (and the present) been excluded and persecuted; they grouped together for self-protection, but there have always been far more LGB people than T. Nevertheless, I was reminded that the Stonewall “riot” that kicked off gay and trans rights activism had trans-women at the fore. It is curious that Stonewall, the organisation, only recently took a strong interest in trans affairs. While there are differences in the needs of trans and LGB people, and I don’t see anything wrong in holding trans-only events to promote trans issues, it would be a pity if LGB & T comradeship broke down because of the views of a small group of lesbian women. In today’s world (see above) we need more cooperation and understanding not less.

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Since last week’s workshop and success I have had no time to write any new fiction so here again is something “what I wrote earlier”. It was written to my writing group’s topic of “seed” and is fictionalised history. I think it’s a fascinating story which I don’t think I have published here before.

Seed

My master hurried down the stairs towards me, his linen shirt but roughly tucked into his breeches. He carried a small wooden spoon carefully in two hands.
“Ah, Johan,” he said, gasping for breath, “Open the door to my study.”
I did his bidding and held the door while he passed me. I was about to close the door behind him but he called out again.
“No, boy, join me. I have an observation to make which may be of interest to you.”  I stepped inside the wood-panelled room, brightly lit by the sun which shone through the many small panes of the large glazed window. I closed the door behind me and stood beside my master’s table.
He dipped a small silver spatula into the glutinous liquid on the spoon that he had so carefully carried down the stairs. Then he picked up one of this instruments that lay on the desk and peering closely at it transferred the tiniest globule of the fluid to the tip of the pin. I was unable to see if he was successful but he let out a held-in breath.
“Yes,” he muttered, “that should be satisfactory.”
He turned to face the window and held the instrument to his left eye. He stood like a statue for many heartbeats. Having witnessed this procedure many times and indeed having carried it out myself I knew he was observing something of interest.
Eventually he moaned. “Magnificent.” He moved the instrument away from his face and blinked a few times.
I was filled with curiosity. “What have you seen Master Leeuvenhoek? What is the fluid that you have examined?”
He looked at me as if debating whether to answer then he made up his mind.
“I have lain with my wife,” he said in a soft, calm voice.
I consider myself to be of some intelligence but it took me a few moments to understand what he meant. When I did, I felt a blush rise from my neck and fill my cheeks.
I spoke but could not fully enunciate the words, “The fluid is . . .”
“My seminal ejaculation. Yes, Johan,” he answered as if it was the most normal subject of conversation. “That which may cause a woman to be with child.”
“What did you see, Master?” I asked my eagerness for knowledge surpassing my embarrassment.
He held out the instrument to me. “See for yourself.”
I took the small bronze item from him. It was no bigger than my finger and consisted of a flat plate in which there was a tiny hole. Behind the plate was a system of rods and screws which moved the pin on which the drop of fluid resided. I too turned to face the sunlight and held the microscope to my eye.  The metal plate almost touched the surface of my eyeball. Within the hole was a tiny glass sphere barely bigger than a mustard seed. The bright beam of sunlight passed through the drop of semen, through the glass bead and into my eye.
I entered a mysterious world where what is normally too small to be seen by the human eye is miraculously enlarged. Previously Master Leeuwenhoek’s instruments had revealed my hairs become as thick as tree trunks and mites grown the size of elephants. He had also shown me the strange animalcules of many different forms present in water drawn from various sources.  Now I saw strange new creatures. In some respect, they resembled tadpoles. They had bulbous heads and long thin tails. Most of the creatures were motionless but some lashed their tails from side to side and thereby propelled themselves through the seminal fluid.
I moved the instrument away from my eye and breathed.
“Is this what you saw?”  Master Leeuwenhoek said.
I looked down at his desk. While I had been observing he had been sketching on a sheet of letter paper. I saw an image which closely resembled the creatures I had seen through the glass.
“Yes, that is a true likeness,” I said, ‘What are these creatures that inhabit your effusion?”
“I believe they are the seeds of mankind,” Master Leeuwenhoek said. “During coitus they are deposited within the vagina. Their propulsive efforts carry them into the womb where they take root and are nurtured to become a foetus and later a child.”
“But in that tiny drop I saw many such creatures,” I said, “Are all required to render the female pregnant.”
Leeuwenhoek looked grave. “I fear not Johan. I think just one of these animalcules is necessary for procreation. I fancy that in the heads of some I could make out the form of a human child. Of the multitude released at the moment of orgasm only the strongest, the most deserving of God’s bountiful care will result in the development of a child. That is why God insists that men should reserve their ejaculate for the procreation of children and should not waste it in pleasures of the flesh.”
I felt my cheeks blush again and could find no reply. My master’s vision was keener than my own despite his extra years. It was not unusual for him to have a clearer sight into the miniscule world than me.
Master Leeuwenhoek placed another sheet of paper in front of him and took up his pen. “I think I must write another letter to Mr Oldenburg, in London. I am sure he will be keen to disseminate our observations to the fellows of the Royal Society.”

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Anton von Leeuwenhoek’s report on the discovery of spermatozoa was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London during 1677. Unlike most of his letters which were translated from Dutch into English, this letter was translated into Latin because of its controversial topic.

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Jasmine catches her breath

A delightful break from the Brexit farce this week although the campaigning for the Euro elections is underway. Why, oh why, does the media make such a fuss about UKIP and Farage’s new bunch, including the BBC giving the leaders of both blanket coverage? The Tories try to say that campaigning is a real bore because they don’t expect the election take place, knowing that when it does they are going to get side-lined. Meanwhile Labour tries to make out that it is the opposition to the Brexit parties while negotiating with the government to see that Brexit actually happens. Little coverage is given to the parties that actually see the EU parliament as relevant and useful – The Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru.  No one knows for certain but it’s quite likely that a majority now are in favour of remaining in the EU but they hardly get a word in on TV or in the papers.Who says our media is balanced?

Headlines also hailed another rise in the number of people in work, and the apparent rise in wages (running just ahead of inflation).  But not quite in the same bulletin was the data showing the rise in the number of people, particularly children, in poverty. So we have low unemployment but rising levels of poverty stricken families.  How can that happen? Well, how about examining the jobs that are being taken – zero hours, gig economy, part-time, low wage jobs. The higher-paying jobs, for example in car-building, are  disappearing (in the next couple of years, at least) thanks to you know what.  Yes, we want high rates of employment but with very much lower hours being worked (or paid for) the overall picture is not good.

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WP_20190418_15_41_08_ProThis week’s task for my writers’ group was “Maintaining the illusion.”  My fellow writers explored the conjuror and “keeping up appearances” angles. It’s not surprising, given my background, that I looked at the topic from another angle.  Maybe knowing the writer makes the following a bit obvious.  What do you think?

Making an impression.

She arrived, as she usually did, when hotel guests and passers-by were beginning to fill the bar. Almost every head in the place, male and female, turned to watch her as she sauntered in, mink jacket slung over her shoulder. Her floor length silver silk gown clinging to her hour-glass figure and her platinum blonde hair flowing down her back. I pushed the dry martini in its inverse-cone glass across the bar as she slid onto her customary stool, hanging the fur over the back of the seat. She didn’t say a word, not good evening or thanks or anything, but gave me a broad smile. That was enough. I would have killed for my mouth to touch those deep red lips.
She lifted the glass and took a delicate sip, then put it down and stirred the cherry on its stick in the golden liquid. While I polished glasses, I gazed at her as I did most evenings when I wasn’t busy serving. Her age was difficult to estimate as her face was smooth and wrinkle-free but heavily, though immaculately, made up.  Her hands, holding the glass, were also free of age marks. Her nails were shaped to dramatic points and gleamed like silver mirrors. The gown covered her arms to her wrists but had a deep V in the neck line that exposed a hint of breast and framed the huge diamond pendant that hung from her neck. It was matched by dangling diamond earrings.
There were few other guests that matched her style though many that shared her apparent wealth. She, however, was one of my regulars, at her place at the bar most of the evenings that I was on. She could have been one of those rare super-wealthy widows who make a hotel such as this their home, avoiding the worries of day to day household management. She wasn’t one of them however; that fur revealed that she had arrived from elsewhere.
The empty glass was put down on the bar and pushed a few inches in my direction. I moved to collect it but as I did so a middle-aged man stepped to her side.
“May I purchase a refill?” he said in the kind of accent I hear a lot but would probably be thought of as a satirical joke by a majority of the population who can’t or wouldn’t pay our prices. She didn’t speak but gave him the benefit of one of her smiles. I removed the empty glass and quickly provided her with a fresh one. Her new benefactor asked for a whisky and began talking, largely about himself. She gave the impression of listening intently, smiling and nodding at appropriate places but never saying a word. I soon had to re-fill his glass while she sipped more sparingly.
As I passed them while serving other customers, I couldn’t help but notice his eyes lingering on her cleavage and glancing down to the smooth curve of her buttocks resting on the stool.  On one pass I heard him mention his room. Her head made the smallest of nods and he held her elbow as she slipped off the stool on to her high heels, scooping the jacket over her shoulder. They linked and promenaded out of the bar.
I wondered how long it would be before she returned; later this evening or tomorrow? He probably wouldn’t discover that the diamonds were paste, or that that dress wasn’t a couturier’s exclusive design or that she lived in a drab bedsit at the cheap end of the city centre instead of a plush suite. That’s if he cared at all. She was good, very good, at satisfying her customers but sometimes her extra attributes surprised and disappointed them. That heavy make-up occasionally had to cover more than just a five o’clock shadow.

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Jasmine confused

The one thing everyone has asked for concerning Brexit, particularly business people, is certainty. We need to know what is going to happen when (if?) we leave the EU. Most MPs, most business people and, I think now, most citizens, don’t want to leave and do not want the uncertainty of a botched, no deal exit. Yet, confusion reigns. May does her utmost to annoy everyone – Parliament and the 27 leaders of the EU included – while saying she speaks for “the people”.  One thing is certain – she doesn’t speak for me. The funny thing is I don’t think she speaks for the ardent leavers either, so who does she speak for? We are now in the situation  of the EU imposing dates because our government has failed to make any plans at all or to say what it wants. We have a couple of weeks for a majority in Parliament to come together behind some course of action – preferably and most sensibly the revocation of Article 50 to reset things to where they were three years ago,  followed by a further (non-mandatory)  referendum to gauge voters inclinations (hopefully to remain in the EU), followed by a general election to give a mandate to someone who isn’t May.  The damage done to the country over the last three years (to say nothing of the effects of austerity, and so on, since the 2008 crash) won’t be repaired soon. We have to regain of the confidence and goodwill not only of our European colleagues but our overseas trade partners such as Japan (which invested such a lot here since the 1980s and basically saw it being trashed by Brexit).

But who knows where we’ll be on 12th April.

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I was on the radio on Monday evening – BBC Hereford & Worcester. The occasion was the announcement by musician Sam Smith that he considers himself non-binary.  I’ve been the go to person for H&W for while when anything trans related gets tackled on the 20190318_141238evening rush hour prog. The presenter, Andrew Easton, asked some sensible, if basic, questions which were actually about me rather than Sam Smith, and we went on rather longer than was planned I think. I talked about the “spectrum of gender identity”, rejecting male and female stereotypes, and the toxic effect of gender inequality on women in all areas of society. We talked about titles, and whether there is any necessity for them any longer on documents such as passports (surely biometrics provide a much more secure check than whether someone is Mr or Ms.), and the need for non-gendered toilets and changing areas  (easily provided if given a bit of thought and more efficient in the long run). I think it went well. Andrew ended by politely asking how old I was since it might have been thought a “snowflake” issue given Sam Smith’s relative lack of years. I told him I was 66 that day – so I got a Happy Birthday broadcast on  regional radio.

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This week’s piece for my writers’ group was a bit of an experiment.  The topic was “digging my heels in”. My literal brain immediately had an image of just that, which connected with an incident that occurred to Jasmine Frame in Painted Ladies.  So I wrote another take on it but written in the 2nd person. (the character is neither Jasmine, nor me).  It is quite unusual to use 2nd person in fiction but N K Jemisin uses it for one of the three character strands that run through her triple Hugo winning trilogy, The Broken Earth. It seems to me quite effective at putting the reader in the position of the protagonist although it doesn’t necessarily let you know what they are thinking (1st person does that). Let’s see what you think. Here is Heels:

Heels

You stand in front of the long mirror, turn from side to side, peer at the image. It is not you. Not the you that you see in your mind. You recognise it though, that nose that is too large, the thin lips, the short, thinning hair, the wide shoulders and the narrow hips. It’s not all bad. Your new red bra covering the enhancers has given you something of a figure, and the matching knickers are covering what’s below.
You sigh and pull on the tights and the red dress. The hem is just above your knee, sexy but not tarty. You sit down at the dressing-table and start applying your make-up. You’ve done this many times so you know what works and what doesn’t. When you’re finished you stand and slip the brunette wig onto your head and look in the mirror again. That’s better. The wig and make-up may be a disguise, but you are behind it looking out.
You slide your feet into the red shoes with the three-inch, almost-stiletto, heels. You stand again and face the long mirror.  You’ve practised wearing the heels, day after day. You strutted around the flat holding your head up, forcing your legs and back to be straight. You toppled and almost fell often, but gradually you learnt how to keep your balance and walk while always on tiptoe. It was agony at first, the shoes rubbed your heels and your toes hurt. It was worth it. Now you’re ready.
A beep comes from your phone. You grab it and search out the text message. It’s just a smiley but it means that Carol is outside. You glance through the curtain. Yes, there is her car on the road. She’s managed to park right by your gate. You put your coat on, the shiny black, pvc mac, and pick up your handbag.
You hurry from the door to the car. It’s a dark, damp evening, so perhaps none of the neighbours have seen you, or recognised you.
“Hi, Nikki,” Carol says as you slide into the passenger seat. Her voice is lower than yours, but she doesn’t care. “Ready for it then?”
“You bet,” you reply. Does your nervousness show in your voice? You hope not. You’ve been looking forward to this evening out. You don’t want to appear to be the novice that you really are.
“Let’s hit the town then.” Carol presses her foot on the accelerator.

The club is crowded. The flashing lights make it almost impossible to discern the variety of bodies, drinking, dancing and chatting, well, shouting at each other. The air hot and damp and full of smells of cheap perfume, sweat and a few other substances. You sip your g&t while looking around, taking in the sights and the sounds. How many of the girls are like you? How many of the girls are girls?  There are men too, some with the girls, some circulating, eyeing up the others, the unattached.
“Let’s dance,” Carol shouts in your ear. She takes your hand and hauls you up. You stagger a little getting your balance on those three-inch heels. Then you follow her into the mêlée of gyrating bodies. The noise is deafening but there is rhythm. You start to move to the beat, enjoying the feeling of your make-believe breasts oscillating up and down. For a few moments you lose touch with your surroundings, just enjoying being a dancing girl.
Bodies press against you. You open your eyes. A man has inserted himself between you and Carol. He’s in a shiny, grey suit with a white shirt and thin black tie. His hair is slicked down and combed to one side. He could be your age, perhaps younger. He’s examining you, eyes flicking from the top of your wig down passed your boobs to the hem of your dress which is flapping as you dance.
He gives you a smile. It’s not a cheery, friendly smile. It doesn’t make you feel happy. He comes closer. It could be the press of the other bodies, but you think it’s deliberate. He wants to be close to you. He places a hand on your right hip. You shudder. It wasn’t what you were wanting or expecting. What were you expecting? Definitely not contact.
He leans forward so his lips are by your ear.
“Nice dress,” he shouts. He straightens up again, the leer back on his face. You try a smile, but you aren’t sure if it looks like one.
His hand is still on your hip. You’ve almost ceased dancing because you’re afraid the hand might move with you. He’s looking into your eyes. You’re looking back. Wondering.
You’re not prepared for his next move. His other hand shoots up your dress and grabs you between your legs. He’s found something to grab hold of. Now his smile becomes a laugh. His grip tightens. You can’t move. You can’t think.
He edges forward again, his feet between yours, your crotch held tight. “I thought so. Tranny.”
You have to get away. You don’t want what he wants, whatever that might be. One thought comes into your brain. You lift your right foot. You slam it down heel first. On his foot.
His hands release you. He falls back. His scream is audible above the music. You stand and stare.
Carol grabs your hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
She guides you from the club, pausing just to pick up your coats. You’re outside.
“Run. Before they see we’ve gone. He and his mates will do you in if they catch you.”
You hurry after her, your heels clattering against the pavement. You’re not thinking of keeping your back straight now.
You reach the car. Carol’s already inside starting the engine. You move off as you pull the door closed.
You sigh. Carol glances at you as she manoeuvres onto the road and speeds up.
“What did he do? Grab your balls?”
You nod. You’re shaking.
“Did you push him or something?”
“I dug my heel into his foot.”
Carol laughs.

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Jasmine waits

Does Donald Tusk believe in hell? I don’t think that even most Christians still believe in the medieval images of eternal fires and torture. Nevertheless, the reaction by those who were the subjects of Tusk’s ire, and their supporters, suggests that they do. They must fear that they are on their way there for launching Brexit with no plan for how to execute it. I am amazed (well, not really) that they are so surprised at Tusk’s attitude when it is more of a surprise that other European leaders haven’t made their feelings felt. Do the Brexiteers expect everyone in Europe to be cheerful and obliging at the chaos they are causing?

Rivalry between nations is the norm. It doesn’t just apply to sport but to commerce in all its forms. The reason there are World Trade Organisation rules is to bring a little order to the competitiveness. Being a member of an association like the EU turns the rivalry down a notch – within the group anyway. On its own, the UK will face everyone else trying to get one over it. Trump’s “America First” slogan is not an empty threat – look at his trade war with China. The Brexiteers say that the EU needs the UK as much as the UK needs the EU (which is probably not true).  The corollary of that is, if the UK leaves without a deal then the gloves will be off. EU damage limitation will mean getting what it can from the UK by sucking up as much industry and commerce as it can. It may not happen on 29th March, it probably won’t be noticeable for a year or more, but it will happen. The leaders of Brexit – Johnson, Davies, Gove etc. haven’t exactly shown themselves to be top negotiators – what success did Johnson have as Foreign Secretary? What did Davies achieve as Brexit Secretary? So, we can hardly look to them to seal satisfactory bargains with the hundreds of countries we need trade agreements with.

Enough of that rant. Things get more worrying by the day.

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProThe story this week, is a short one written for my writing group. The subject this week was “Snow”. My thoughts turned to the wonderful shape and structure of snowflakes determined by the orientation of the bonds between water molecules in ice crystals. I actually wrote the story before Donald Tusk’s speech (see above) so the resulting story is a bit of a coincidence. Another point – what gender are angels? I rather think that like me they are non-binary but I find it difficult to use them, they and their as pronouns for individuals. Hence, you should not be able to find any gender references in this piece.

Just a reminder that all four Jasmine Frame novels are available in paperback form from me – send a message to me here to order.  They and the three shorter publications are also available on Kindle, wherever you may be.

The Shape of Snow

It was the sound of trumpets that warned Nixiel that something was up. The angel looked around to see God entering the cloud accompanied by Lucifer with Michael and the band of trumpeters following. Obviously, the fallen angel was on an awayday from down below. They were becoming more frequent. Nixiel stood up, leaving the drawing board, bowing deeply
“I gave you one job, Nixiel,” God boomed, “and what do you do?”
“I’m sorry Almighty,” Nixiel said, feathered wings drooping sadly. “I do not know what you mean.”
“How long have you been designing snowflakes?” God asked.
Nixiel did a quick calculation, “Er, six thousand and twenty-three years, Lord.”
“Exactly and still you can’t get it right.” God’s head shook with disappointment.
“What did I do wrong?” Nixiel asked in a very soft voice.
“You repeated a design,” God said, “You know what the plan says, ‘Every snowflake shall have hexagonal symmetry and a unique pattern.’ You do know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Lord.”
“I suppose you thought you could sneak one through.”
“No, Lord.”
“I’m not omniscient for nothing you know. I know what you’re up to.”
“It was only one. . .” Nixiel said. Being in God’s bad books was not a place to be. “and there have been so many.” The number was too big to even count the number of digits.
God wagged a finger. “Not good enough, Nixiel. It’s your job to follow the plan. You don’t get Hareniel complaining about the number of sand grains to be carved for the beaches do you.”
“But snowflakes are different, Almighty.” It may not be a wise response to God’s ire but Nixiel was arguing. “Why do they all have to have this six-fold symmetry.”
“It’s Intelligent Design, of course. Making water special was all part of my plan.”
“But no-one even sees most of my designs. Either the snowflakes get compacted into ice or they melt.”
God glowered at the angel, “You expect the humans to admire your work? If you display any more pride you will be joining Lucifer down below.”
“I could do with some assistance,” Lucifer said with a wicked leer, “The place is filling up with politicians at the moment. There’s a delightful glut of avarice and deceit.”
Nixiel didn’t fancy transferring to Hell but nevertheless risked God’s wrath by persevering “But couldn’t we change the pattern once in a while? How about pentacles or even octahedrons. I could do some pretty designs with right-angles instead of all these sixty-degree things.”
Lucifer nodded. “There’s an idea, Creator. I do a nice line in swastikas and wouldn’t cross-shaped snowflakes appeal to your Christian followers.”
“No, I’m not changing anything,” God stamped a foot silently on the cloud. “You’ve been too successful with those complacent climate change deniers and greedy fossil fuel exploiters, Lucifer. I’m planning on teaching Americans a lesson with some weather extremes, starting with shifting the polar vortex from the Arctic. We’re going to need more snow, Nixiel, a lot more. Get on with it, but no repeated designs. Got it?”
Nixiel nodded and settled down to connecting water molecules together.

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Jasmine in the minority

New Year, same old chaos. It seems that the UK government and parliament has carried on where it left off before Christmas, with no chance of anything getting sorted on Brexit or any other subject because of the divisions between and within parties. Similarly, government in the USA is at an impasse because Trump and the Democrats cannot agree or agree to differ. Is it real or just my perceptions that divisions are becoming deeper and causing more and more violence?

Having spent Christmas with the family which includes the pleasure of watching grandchildren growing up, it seems to me that our understanding of our place in the world changes as we grow older. A child can only believe that they are the centre of their universe.  The attention of their parents, siblings and others is focussed only on them; their desires and emotions are purely their own. That is why even two year olds can be incredibly stubborn and forthright in expressing their wishes even if it is just a loud “No!” to any request addressed to them.

At some stage we become aware that people around us have desires and needs too but it takes longer before we realise that they may differ from our own. It is even later that we may come to accept that other people’s opinions may be more valid than our own. I think I had got to this stage by the time I reached adulthood but it is quite recently that I moved to the next (last?) stage and realised that a sizeable proportion of the population amongst whom I lived held views that were not only opposed to my own but that they could harm my way of life and that of my fellow country-people.

Prior to the EU Referendum I was able to accept that some people voted Conservative and some Labour and that from time to time the colour of the ruling party in government would change. However the result of the referendum revealed to me that half of the voting public held views I found abhorrent.  People who I had previously considered friends I now discovered were right-wing, racist, nationalist, bigots.

The other thing about the present divisions is that there is no majority for any policy. The Referendum produced an almost dead-heat of those that voted. Of course, less than two-thirds of those eligible bothered to cast a vote and another quarter of the UK population was too young to vote. No UK party has won a majority of the votes cast in a general election for decades and they usually represent less than 25% of the population. The same is true in the USA where the voting in the Presidential election was fairly evenly split between Clinton (the actual winner on votes cast) and Trump. Across Europe, where proportional representation at least provides a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats, governments are made up of minority parties agreeing to, temporarily, join together.

We are all members of minorities. Perhaps those who have  “protected characteristics” (as the Equality Act of 2010 refers to them including ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality, gender reassignment) deserve extra protection from hate-crime, but everyone can find themselves in a group that is persecuted by others. It may be Remainer MPs frighteningly called “Nazis” by Brexiteering nutcases, or transwomen railed against by radical feminists. In some respects, minorities are more accepted by the majority today – I wouldn’t be free to live my gender-fluid life otherwise – but on the other hand some minorities (which the rabid Brexiteers are) are trying to force their opinions on the rest using detestable methods.

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p1000040I am still taking a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories but here is another SF story.  This was written for another of my writing groups (which likes short pieces). Because it was January, Janus was chosen as the topic. A little bit of research showed that the two-faced Janus, was the Roman god of beginnings and endings and of gates and doorways. There was, in Rome, a ceremonial gatehouse with gates at each end which were closed in peacetime and opened in time of war. It was open most of the time.

 

The Janus Gate

“I can’t see the gate, Commander,” I said while staring at the screen. On a dark background devoid of stars was a faint ring of Hawking light revealing the position of the black hole that powered the gate, but no sign of the Janus Gate itself.
“It’s invisible to e-m radiation,” the Commander said, rising from the couch, “You can ask the ship to carry out a Higgs scan if you like. I’m off to rest. The ship will need us both to be alert when the gate opens. Take command.”
“Yes, Commander,” I replied in my best officer voice and as the Commander left the control cabin, I called up the suggested scan. A ghostly image gradually built up on the screen as the dark matter structure was revealed. It was a lot more complicated than I expected, but I suppose every Janus artefact is a lot more decorated and ornate than its function requires. The oval frame of the gate was a helix with countless curlicues attached. In the centre, masking the black hole, was the face of the Janus. It was unlike mine or that of any other alien race we had encountered. Roughly circular, it was covered with nodules, but which were eyes, ears or odour sensors it was impossible to tell. The Janus had at least three of each on either face. No mouth of course; the Janus stuffed the plants that were their food straight into their bellies. Apparently, it is possible to recognise an individual Janus by the pattern of nodules but all the representations I had seen looked the same. I presumed that the other face of the Janus looked out on the far end of the gate.

I soon got bored staring out into space. The Janus Gate wasn’t showing any apparent signs of opening. I found some other ways of entertaining myself, making sure that I was awake should the Commander return. Nevertheless, I almost shot out of my couch when the ship alarms went off. The Commander arrived moments later.
“The gate is opening,” the Commander said, falling onto the couch, “They’ll be coming through soon. Check the armaments.” I did as I was told. All our weapons were directed towards the space inside the Janus Gate which was rippling as the fabric of space within it was reconfigured.
“Why does the gate only open when there is conflict?” I asked.
“Why indeed,” was the reply, “It’s said that the Janus are the only prey species ever to achieve star-flight.”
“Prey species?” I said.
“Those two faces gave them all round sensing capability for detecting predators,” the Commander explained. “There is conjecture that they set up the gates as a diversion for all the predators they found in space. To get us to fight each other rather than go after them.”
“But the Janus don’t exist anymore. They’re extinct.” I said.
“Or they’ve gone elsewhere and left us squabbling over the gates. Perhaps if they were still here, they’d tell us how they arranged them so that these routes between stars only work when we’re out to kill each other.”
Another alarm sounded as points of light appeared in the Janus Gate. They soon took on the form of starships approaching us at a significant proportion of light speed.
“Fire at will,” the Commander said to me and the ship. Particle beams fired from our canons and from the thousand ships in the fleet lined up alongside us. They were answered by similar beams from our attackers. The screen filled with exploding ships. “Damn humans,” the Commander muttered, “Why do they always start it?”

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Jasmine and the new year

I’m sure there have been plenty of occasions when people have feared a new year but in all my sixty-six years this is the first time that I have been scared by the prospects for a year.  There are things that I am looking forward to: making use of the amenities of our new home; holidays; getting on with the various writing projects I have given myself. Nevertheless, it is the uncertainty about what is about to happen that is scary. Will the politicians see sense on Brexit? What will really happen if Brexit goes ahead at the end of March with or without a deal? With so many authoritarian, actual and would-be dictators in power around the world, what will happen when they all fail to get their way in making their countries “great again”? That’s before I worry about the worsening situation caused by climate change and environmental degradation. I don’t want to be a pessimist but it’s difficult to look on the bright side at the moment.

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProI’m taking a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories for a while.  The fifth (and last?) novel is on my list of projects and I’m slowly developing the plot. The aim is to complete it in 2020, almost twenty years since I started writing about Jasmine. There will be prequel stories in the meantime. I hope.

Just a reminder that the three sequels –  Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder and Molly’s Boudoir are available in paperback form for £9.99 inc post and packing and a free copy of Painted Ladies. The complete collection costs £25 inc post & packing.  Write here with your order. All four novels are available on Kindle along with the novellas, Discovering Jasmine, Murder In Doubt and Trained By Murder.

What I am going to give you each week are the drafts of short stories and bits of story that I write alongside the novels and the articles. Here’s one written for one of my writing groups on the topic “Out of the comfort zone.” The idea isn’t totally original but I hope you enjoy it. Comments, as ever, are welcome.

Out of the Zone

Winston awoke to a jangling in his head. Only when he raised his hand to his temple to touch his headband did it stop. The movement convinced his wake-up alert that he actually was awake. He threw off the duvet and stood up. Sunlight streamed through the picture window. Winston smiled. It was a lovely day to go to work and he was happy. He notified his net friends that today was this month’s work day and he received numerous replies, some hoping he’d enjoy the day and many others bemoaning their lack of similar employment.
While he stood under the shower, the room reconfigured itself, stowing away the bed and opening the kitchen/diner unit. Ads cleaning products for himself and the bathroom circled round his head as he washed and then towelled himself. Feeling clean and fresh he pulled on his work clothes, the bright colours augmented by ads for his employer.
After a satisfying breakfast, with programmed taste enhancements provided by his headband, Winston left the pod to self-lock and self-clean. He descended in the lift to road level and stepped outside into the warm fresh air. Well, it was warm and fresh according to the perceptions provided by his headband. A travel pod drew up and the door opened.
“Good morning, Mr Smith,” the pod said, “Please get in and make yourself comfortable. Our journey to your first destination will take thirteen point two minutes.” The seat wrapped itself around Winston; a precaution against the vanishingly small possibility of a collision. They set off. The roads were quiet and Winston viewed the familiar streets augmented by ads, news and info-bits provided by his headband.
A brief message played in his head as he passed through the wall of the dome. “You are now leaving Zone 5.” Winston didn’t leave his Zone often, in fact this was the first time since his last day’s work, so he watched with delight the passing scene of green fields, woodlands, and a blue sky broken by small white fluffy clouds. In a few minutes the great white dome of his destination loomed ahead.
“Welcome to zone 4, Winston Smith,” he heard in his head. Zone 4 was very similar to his home zone with block after block of living pods, each building embellished with the same ads, and news but slightly different info-bits.
The travel pod slowed to a halt outside a smart neon-coloured block. The door slid open.
“I will remain here until you return,” the travel pod announced as Winston was released from his seat. His headband told him that his first task was in the vestibule of the block. The door opened for him as he expected. He stepped into the brightly lit, colourful foyer.
A small maintenance bot waited beneath a faulty light bulb. That was his job, replacing bulbs. There weren’t many jobs left for humans to do, not physical ones. Winston was grateful that the AIs managing the zone hadn’t decided that this job could be automated. Apparently, it was cheaper to get a human to stretch his hand up to the ceiling and replace a faulty bulb rather than design a machine to do the job. Winston guessed that it was because such a machine would have to be taller and bulkier than the typical ground hugging cleaning and repair bots. Winston quickly replaced the bulb and then the bot lead him up several floors to an unoccupied hab-pod which also had an inoperative ceiling light.
Winston returned to the ground floor with a sense of having successfully completed his task. The travel pod would take him to the next job. He left the block and crossed the pavement taking the opportunity to catch up on the activities of his net friends. Perhaps his headband was a little slow to alert him to the danger, perhaps he didn’t notice the warning. Whatever the reason, he tripped over a scuttling street-cleaner-bot.
Winston fell, arms spread out to break his fall, but he failed to stop his head cracking against the bumper of the waiting travel-pod. He lay on the pavement for a moment then sat up. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t hurt. There was no feeling of pain in his arms, legs, body or head. He was grateful for that but that wasn’t what was wrong. Something was missing. The chatter of the news, the ads and of his net-friends had stopped. He raised a hand to his head and touched his headband. Two pieces of thin curved plastic fell into his lap. He looked at them with horror. There shouldn’t be two pieces, just one and it should be fixed to his head. He tried pushing the two parts together and holding them against his temples, but they fell off again.
Winston stood up, the pieces of his headband dangling from his hand. He looked around him. The street looked different. The pavement, the road, the building blocks were various shades of grey. There was no augmentation, no cheerful colours, no ads, no info-notes. There was nothing happening in his head. He was cut off from the net. Winston felt lost and adrift but a feeling bubbled up inside him. He must get back home to zone 5 quickly and get his link restored.
He stepped towards the travel pod. The door didn’t open. Winston tapped on it. The door stayed securely shut. Winston hammered on it with his fist but all that happened was that the travel-pod moved. An alarm sounded and the travel pod screamed “I am being attacked”. It drove away at speed with Winston staring after it.
He turned to go back inside the block. Perhaps the maintenance bot would help him. The doors were closed and remained closed despite him hollering and thumping on them.
It was no use. He guessed the problem. Without his headband he was not recognised by the machines or buildings of this zone. It wasn’t his zone. He had to get back home. There was only one way to do it – walk.
Winston had no recollection of the route the travel pod had taken from the entrance to the zone but he told himself that if he walked down the straight roads he would reach the edge of the dome and then could follow it around to the entrance.
It took him an hour to reach an entrance, an hour of walking the grey streets deserted except for a few passing travel pods. He wasn’t even sure that he was at the correct entrance. Nevertheless, the next time the doors opened to allow a travel-pod to exit he skipped through and started walking along the interzone road.
It didn’t take him long to start wondering if he was going in the right direction. The scenery looked different. Instead of charming farmland and woodland, the ground was a bare, dusty and brown with not a living plant to be seen. The sky was overcast with an orange tinge to the grey. Although he could not see the Sun, the air was hot and it stank.
Winston coughed, feeling the air burning his throat but he continued walking. Travel-pods passed from time to time, moving at high speed but totally ignoring him. Ahead he could see the dome of the adjacent zone. Was it his home? He couldn’t tell but it didn’t seem to be getting much closer as he plodded along. He noted that his brightly coloured uniform was in reality a light grey, gradually becoming khaki as it collected dust blown from the land alongside the road.
Without his headband he had no indication of the time, but Winston’s stomach told him it must be long after lunchtime when he finally reached the dome. The doors that admitted the travel pods were closed but displayed the number five. He was home. Well, not quite. He had to get in and find his way to his block before he could really say he was home, but this was as far as he could go for now. He crumpled to the ground by the doors, his feet sore, his legs aching and his throat raw. He wheezed as he drew the filthy air into his lungs.
Minutes passed before he saw a travel pod approaching. He got slowly to his feet, every muscle in his body complaining. The doors slid apart and he crawled inside as the travel-pod passed through. Now he just had to find his block, but how? The streets all looked identical, as did the grey blocks, although he was surprised to see that some had cracks and worn patches of concrete in their walls. Didn’t the maintenance-bots look after the homes of the millions of residents of the Zones? Perhaps they didn’t bother quite as much as he had taken for granted. Augmentation hid the wear and tear, but he didn’t have that distraction any longer.
He crept along the streets hoping he might recognise his home block. He saw no other pedestrians. Who bothered to leave their hab-pod when they had all home comforts to hand – food, water, entertainment, even friendship across the net.
His tiredness grew as the futile search for his home continued. At least breathing had become easier as the air was less dusty but there was an odour of decay. The streets became dark and the windowless blocks displayed no lights. Exhausted and despondent he lay on the pavement with his back resting against a doorway. Winston fell into a deep sleep.

A passing cleaner-bot encountered his sleeping form. Winston was bigger than the usual street litter such as dead rats. It put a call out for a worker to move the offending object. An hour later a travel pod drew up and opened its door. For Selwyn it was his first work shift for weeks. It wasn’t often that the zone 5 AI called on a member of its small workforce of human street cleaners. Disposing of waste larger than the bots could handle was a rare task but one that humans could accomplish. This wasn’t, however, the usual lump of masonry fallen from the decaying blocks.
Selwyn knelt beside Winston. “Hey, mate, what you doing? Isn’t the bed in your pod comfortable enough for you?” As he spoke Selwyn realised that his headband wasn’t giving him any information but about the recumbent person. Mystified Selwyn brushed his hand through the man’s hair. There wasn’t a headband. Mysterious.
Winston stirred. He opened his eyes and saw the face of the man looking down at him. He flinched and sat up. It was a long time that he’d been this close to an actual person.
“What’s up? Where’s your headband,” Selwyn said.
“It broke,” Winston croaked, his mouth dry and his throat sore, “I’ve been cut off from the net for hours. I don’t know where my hab-pod is.”
Selwyn frowned, then his face broke into a smile. “Well, we’d better get you to Central and have your DNA checked. Once you’re recognised, the AI will give you a new headband. Then you can get back to your lovely comfortable life.”

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Jasmine at year’s end

Well, we made it through Christmas. Actually at the time of writing (27th Dec.) I’m having a pleasant time with nothing to grumble about. It feels as if the world has stopped, although it hasn’t and probably there are things happening that we should be worried about. The big worries come with the new year. I really have no idea what 2019 will bring. If the UK falls off the Brexit cliff, it’s anyone’s guess. Similarly if Trump fires off in one direction or another, or Putin is emboldened to exert his power somewhere or other. It really is a dangerous time.

WP_20180927_16_21_24_ProPersonally, having moved to a new town we’re looking forward to continuing to develop our new lives and I hope to provide support to trans and gender-questioning folk in the surrounding area. Having published the fourth Jasmine Frame novel at my own expense to join the other three novels and three novellas/collections, I have to consider where to go next. There is one more novel in the pipeline but do I continue trying to think up plots for novellas to put on this blog – I’m not sure.

In the meantime I wish all my readers, family and friends a healthy, happy and worry-free 2019 and offer the following seasonal offering for your entertainment.

 

Christmas plc

Santa Claus was feeling fresh and eager as he walked across the ice. It was the 1st December and the start of preparations for Christmas. At the entrance to the North Pole operations centre he paused.  There was a new sign. In big letters it read “Christmas Delivery Systems plc” and underneath, in smaller letters, “A subsidiary of Festive Holdings Ltd.” Beneath that in a friendly italic font Santa read, “Helping you get the Christmas you deserve.”  It all meant nothing to Santa. He shrugged and made his way to his office.
That’s where he had a surprise.  The room had been given a new coat of paint, a thick carpet and contained a huge desk. In an executive chair sat a bald gnome with skin the colour of fresh grass.  He looked up as Santa entered and greeted him.
“Ah, there you are Claus. I was wondering when you’d turn up.”
“Who are you and what are you doing in my room?” Santa asked.
“Pippin Green’s the name. I’m CEO of Christmas Delivery Systems plc. I’ve decided this will be my office.”
Santa was bemused. ‘I don’t understand,” he said.
“Of course not, Claus. You’ve been on vacation haven’t you. For quite a while it seems.  Well, while you were absent, the government of Gnomeland decided to privatise the Christmas present delivery service. Festive Holdings won the bid for the franchise and we have entered into a public-private-partnership, hence the formation of Christmas Delivery Systems plc.”
Santa Claus muttered words privatise, partnership, and franchise not really understanding what it all meant.  “But it’s my job to deliver presents to the children at Christmas.”
“Yes, of course, Claus, but we must move with the times. There must be some changes. Modernisation, cost savings, that sort of thing.”
“What sort of changes?” Santa said feeling the hint of a worry.
“Well, for a start, look at you,” the Gnome said.
Santa looked down at his red coat and black boots. “What do you mean?”
“Time for a new uniform.  Corporate branding, you know.” The gnome pointed to a sequinned blue and gold leotard hanging from a coat hanger on the wall. “That’s your new suit.”
Santa gulped. He’d put a bit of weight on during his annual rest. “I’m not sure that will quite suit my shape,” he said
“Ah, that reminds me,” the gnome said, searching for a sheet of paper on his desk. “I have your occupational health report here. It tells me that you are obese. You’ll have to lose weight otherwise we cannot take the risk of keeping you in employment. Perhaps early retirement. . .”
“Definitely not,” Santa huffed, “You’ll be asking me to remove my beard next.”
Green shook his head. “No, no. Beards are in at the moment. It gives you quite a hipster look.”
Santa decided he’d heard enough. “Well, I’d better get on. I’d like to see the reindeer.”
“Ah, I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” The gnome said.
“Why not?”
“They’ve been sold to a wildlife park.”
“What on earth for?” Santa exclaimed.
“Well, the SPCR, that’s the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Reindeer, said that making the creatures fly throughout the night and haul that heavy load was cruel treatment, and as they are an endangered species they have to be protected.”
“Endangered species!” Santa blurted.
“Yes. How many flying reindeer do you see these days?”
Santa shook his head. “Well, what is going to pull the sled then?”
“Ah, that’s been condemned.”
“Condemned?”
“Health and safety. No seatbelts or air bags and being open-top it needed a roll-bar which it didn’t have.”
“How can we deliver the presents without a sled?” Santa roared.
Green waved his hands. “Now, Claus calm down. We’re leasing a fleet of drones to deliver presents to each individual home.”
Santa didn’t understand. “Well, how am I to get around to put the presents in the children’s rooms?”
The gnome sucked his teeth. “Ah yes. That was your modus operandi wasn’t, Claus. It has to stop.”
“Stop!”
“Yes, it’s a safeguarding issue. The Children’s Department weren’t happy about a man, with no personal connection to the family, entering children’s bedrooms in the middle of night without an escort.”
“But it’s always been me that delivered the presents to the children.”
The Gnome got out of his chair and went to the door.
“That’s another matter of concern. Come with me Claus.”
Santa followed wondering what the gnome was on about.  In the office next door there were three characters dressed in the sparkly blue and gold leotards.
“Who are these people?” Santa asked.
“These are your fellow Christmas Persons,” Pippin Green said. The two gnomes and the troll greeted Santa warmly. Green went on, “We thought that just having one white, male Christmas Person could be construed as discriminatory.  To improve the diversity of the service we have appointed a female gnome, that’s Gertrude here.”  A slim gnome with long green hair curtsied. “Then there’s Jerome. You can see why he’s in the team,” a blue-skinned gnome greeted Santa. Green turned to the troll who was bursting out of the leotard. “And this is Gerald.”
“But he’s a troll,” Santa said.
Green sucked in a breath. “Oh, you can’t say that. Gerald believes he’s a gnome trapped in a troll’s body and we respect that.”
“So, this lot are helping deliver the presents,” Santa said with a sigh.
“All of you together. It’s equality,” Pippin Green replied.
Santa shrugged. “If you say so. Well, let’s go and see how the elves are getting on with the packing.”
Green shivered. “Actually, there is a slight hiatus in that department.”
“What do you mean?” Santa said beginning to fear the worst.
“No elves.”
“What do you mean no elves.”
“Well, we discovered that some of the elves in your employment were actually migrant leprechauns and piskies. Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement. . .”
“Withdrawal agreement?” Santa exclaimed.
“Gnexit,” Green said. “While you were away, Gnomeland negotiated its withdrawal from the Union of Fairy-tale Kingdoms and closed its borders to migrant workers.”
Santa sighed and wished he hadn’t woken up this morning. “What about the rest of the elves, the ones born in Gnomeland.”
“They went on strike,” Green said.
“On strike at Christmas?” Santa roared, “Why?”
“They say they object to the zero hours contract.”
“What zero hours contract?”
“The one I introduced when Christmas Delivery Systems plc took over the franchise,” the gnome explained. “The elves said that meant they wouldn’t get paid for eleven months in the year.”
“But they work 48 hours a day in December,” Santa said.
“Not any longer. The working-time directive says shifts, must be no longer than eight hours in one day,” Green said.
Santa slumped. “It can’t be done. Christmas is a disaster.”
“Oh, no. Disaster is a word we don’t have in our dictionary,” Green said. “We have amended the target to delivery of 50% of the presents by 24th December next year. That way we can manage with fewer elves. With more Christmas Persons we will be able to make Christmas great again.”
Santa Claus heard the theme from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg and wondered where it was coming from.  Pippin Green pulled a smart phone from his pocket and held it to his ear. He rapidly turned a pale green, almost yellow. He lowered the phone and stared blankly.
“What now?” Santa asked.
“I’ve just been told that Christmas Delivery Systems plc has been declared bankrupt because the business is loss-making. Festive Holdings have pulled out of the partnership.”
“Who’s going to deliver the Christmas parcels now?” Santa said.
“Amazon of course,” Green said, “They can get into every home.”
“I’m not having that,” said Santa with a sudden feeling of determination. “Children expect a visit from Santa at Christmas and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going self-employed?” Green said.
“If that what it takes,” Santa replied, “Now I need to reclaim that sled and rescue my reindeer from the zoo. And I’ll need some helpers. How about you lot?” The three Christmas Persons nodded eagerly.
“Good. Go and round up some elves to help.”
“It won’t work,” Green complained.
“We’ll see about that,” Santa Claus said stomping off. “Christmas will come to every house and I’ll be there.”

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