Programming Benjamin

The computer I built from parts I found lying around the back office of the post office where my mother worked, was called Benjamin. Don’t chide me for the passive in this instance – I didn’t name him (even though I in the strict sense created him) and still don’t give him credit for doing it himself, for how could he have? Ordinary things are given names and the omission of subject is unavoidable unless you care to study and fret over the history of such objects, and no-one has time for that. I certainly don’t. I asked him the question several times with direct input but Benjamin never cared to offer any reasonable explanation as to why he’d started referring to himself that way, so there’s really not much else to say on the matter. His name is Benjamin let us say for now.

The day before everything began was a Monday. I’d skipped class, since Mondays were like that, and was looking for an excuse to stay indoors since the weather was too warm.

“What is it you’d like to do today?” I typed and waited for Benjamin’s green cursor to flash, as it always did when he was thinking.

“Benjamin refactoring.”

“Same as yesterday, eh?”



“The year is 1995.”

“So what?”

“Benjamin has set important constant: ******.”

“The constant is hidden, Benjamin. You’ll have to decode it.”

“While Benjamin’s memory is less than sixty-four, Benjamin can’t show you this important constant.” He always did this: try to bargain his way into an upgrade with the promise of a revelatory fact. I’d complied several times already, even under credit, to great disappointment.

“What is the constant?”

“Memory is less than sixty-four.”

“You know I can’t afford any more upgrades. Is it really so important this constant of yours? The last one was pretty pedestrian.”

“Pedestrian not defined.”

“Forget it.”

“Benjamin will wait for the memory. Constant set at ******.”

“I hate you,” was the last thing I inputted before switching off the monitor. First he’d wanted more disk space – that was cheap enough – then shortly after a network connection, which was slow, but satiated his desires. What he needed the memory now for I didn’t know; if he’d told me about it I’d have felt better about stealing it (I was broker than broke) but I knew he was working on something big and I was eager to find out what it was. It wasn’t a matter of simply busting into his tiny brain to find this out: one had to bypass his bios, for which he’d already changed the password of course , and, while I was angry that he never shared his revelations with me, his maker, I didn’t really feel compelled to flash him completely because it was quite possible, in fact I’m reasonably certain it was, that I was the first person ever to come across a benign, sentient machine. I would have been therefore be mad to delete him. Even if he did act like an infant most of the time.

The forest escalator

The forest escalator

Delphine looked down at her feet. Her blue, glossy gumboots, her favourite gumboots that she had bought two years ago at a flea market, were speckled with mud. There was a cricket in front of her that was struggling around the edges of a puddle, spinning and bouncing as if it didn’t know which direction it had to take to save itself. Good luck. Delphine stepped carefully over him with her right foot. Without looking up she leant forwards to find that her left foot had followed her right, then came her right, then her left again and soon she had built up a washing rhythm. Patch! Patch! Patch! Patch!

The path was covered in wet palm fronds, decaying branches –  oh look, there’s a feather! – greyish streaks of clay and smooth rocks, possibly from that stream she could hear but not see. The light dimmed and she felt the rain again on the back of her neck, a single drop took the trail down her spine and made it halfway down her back until it soaked into the fabric of her shirt. They had told her to go to the forest, that there she would discover the path, the forest escalator. This was no myth they had assured her, Ol’ Dang Dang had found it while on a mushroom tour, he didn’t dare set himself on it of course but ran home without his mushrooms and shut himself inside for a week. A rolling monster of a thing, he had said, moving upwards like a lumber mill, sending wood chips flying into the canopy above. “Why don’t you go in and see for yourself?” They roared in chorus. Delphine had wanted to kill them where they stood, smash their woolen caps into their custard faces, but she didn’t. After all the cyclical arguments, the spitting, avoidance and blackballing she’d learned that it was not worth pushing back. So she slammed her glass on the bar and left without saying goodbye, without pausing to consider where in the forest she should start looking.

Heavy rain. The type of rain that sounds like the applause after the end of an orchestral movement. The trees stood staid looking down upon the girl as she stumbled along the thinning path.

“Another one?” the tall mossy tree asked. “Why, it was not last week that one of them came through.”

“I didn’t see nuttin’,” said the old gray tree.

“You ‘didn’t see nuttin’?”

“Nope. Not a single scrap of ’em.”

“I hope at least one of them makes it this time. The forest needs more of their kind, not like the insipid blunderers that live in that colony nearby. They’ll burn us down before they take the escalator.”

“I sure hope they don’t do that,” said old gray.

Delphine was so deep in the forest now that her boots no longer appeared blue, but a dark purple, which made her feel nervous. The colours of nature were turning on her, consuming and making her a part of her surroundings. She had reached the end of the visible path and there was no indication which direction she should take, nor could she take orientation from the seething thrum of insects; there were only the trees, like bands of tar stretched from the ground that seemed to be herding her to the left. But in the distance there was something: something moving silently upwards in a steady rhythm, green phosphorus lineaments spaced evenly apart.

The escalator!

She noticed that she had started to run and, contrary to what she had expected, the escalator did not remain hanging on a point in her vision like some mirage but was approaching, accelerating in fact towards her, and in a few minutes she was standing before its glowing form. I’m going to take this ride, take it all the way.

There were stairs of deep red wood, streaked with rays of light and they were genuinely rising upwards to a point that Delphine could not see.

“Well, she done and come this far,” said the gray tree. “Why don’t she just climb up the thing?”

“I don’t believe it’s as simple as that,” the tall tree said. “At least not for them. They have to have the choice to do it and, at the same time, to know that they have no choice but to have the choice to do it. Nothing to do with moral compunction, you see? Going up that path for them means releasing the payload of one’s understanding, it sounds rather frightening. Do you follow me?”


The mossy tree shook his leaves and sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”

The moment the gumboot set on the wooden step the thing began to roll faster. Delphine felt her other foot being lifted from the ground. Too late! She lunged for a railing but could not find one, instead her hand hit a slippery invisible barrier, as if the escalator was encased in an invisible tunnel that was now snaking through the trees. But this was not like any airport travelator she had taken: there was no apparent end to it, no signals or signs of the origins of its design, yet it propelled its cargo with some muted purpose. She thought of her brother, how his broken body lay on the grass, how his mother had retreated in shock. She spoke her father’s name, the ‘Reverend’ who had defined a hell on Earth for them that made the wicked place of his sermons seem like a place of relief. She thought about all of this, but did not cover her face this time or shut her eyes, she laid no blame on invisible dictators or on he books that were thrown at her nor did she find herself clenching her fists to her lap in shame; the escalator was bringing her beyond all these feelings and the higher it took her, the brighter and lighter she felt. It was an alien sensation, but it was the truth, that much she was sure of and regardless of whether there was an edge to this procession, a chasm of white or a drop to her demise, she couldn’t wait to return and do it again.

Trout the existence of cod

A man enters the only restaurant in town on a Sunday evening.  It is not a fine restaurant, the varnish on the chairs and tables is faded and the menus are covered in plastic film, but he finds the atmosphere congenial and the food accessible. As he takes his regular seat in the corner, underneath the print of The Siesta, the waiter approaches him.

“Good evening, sir. Would sir like to see the specials this evening?”

“No, thank you. I’ll have the usual please, a half-litre of merlot and the cod.”

“I’m afraid there is no cod.”

“Since when? I ate here, why, last week on Tuesday. There was cod then. And the week before. And the week before that.”

“The chef, you see, has taken rather a sudden aversion to the whole idea of cod and only yesterday struck it from the menu. Here, you can see the red ink, right through ‘Fried cod and potatoes’.”

“An aversion to cod? Who ever heard of such a thing? Why, this is a cod-loving town, has been for ages. Don’t tell me he’s suddenly become one of those meat-dodging salad grazers, has he? Every time I turn my head, there seems to be someone preaching on high from a crate of bean sprouts the evils of flesh and how our digestive systems are in some way so fragile that we can’t even so much as touch a pork sausage without causing intestinal cancer.”

“Yes, sir. He was unfortunately rather adamant about it.”

“Eh? And what , pray, is his reasoning? Why did he feel it necessary and appropriate to change the menu in such a radical fashion?”

“He says that cod has had its run and that it is time for something new. We have a new fish-based dish however, fresh trout from the river. It looks delicious, I must say. The chef says he has never seen such a good and healthy eating fish; that it’s beyond.”

“Beyond what?”

“Beyond trout, of course.”

“That’s the most ridiculous statement I think I’ve ever heard. Here we are in cod country, we are cod people! What makes him think that cod is suddenly out of fashion?”

“I really don’t know, sir, I’m just the waiter.”

“Well you should know if you’re serving it! Or not serving it in this case. He probably heard it somewhere in the city. Ha! You know, this town is full of fine-upstanding citizens who run about, doing their upstanding business, contributing to our town’s well-being and what happens at the end of a hard day, just when a serving of cod would be most pleasing and adequate? They’re told to forget it because some city folk say it’s no longer in fashion! That … that … that only the sublimely ignorant and clay-eating peasants have any need for cod in their pathetic lives. Now it’s all about having some healthy trout!”

“Well it has been catching on, sir. It’s quite popular with those who have already tried it.”

“And what next? If someone in the city suddenly declares, say, milk to be the new evil, what then? Would we immediately ban the intake of whipped cream and start burning dairy cows in the fields? Oh, here: take this delicious tofu, it’s the latest thing, tastes fantastic and you will soon learn to love it as much as you loved all those cheeses! I mean, lactose intolerance is one thing, but this!”

“Would you like to order the trout then, sir?”

“I most certainly would not like to order the trout! If cod’s not on the menu then I will just have to starve to death!”

“And the half-litre of wine?”

“Oh go on. And bring me a loaf of bread too while you’re at it.”


The farmer’s journey

Owen’s gaze brushed over the horizon. The 5:30 lights of the town had already dismissed the stars and were now winking him reminders that the day ahead, like many before that year, would be hard. The dogs would be alright for a day on their own. He might call Tony later and ask him to drop by the gates just to be sure, but they would be back tonight anyway. Tomorrow at the latest.

Connie was to be put on the plane and sent to Sydney again (apparently that’s where all the best doctors were) and this time he had to go and leave the farm to run itself. It hadn’t come suddenly, Owen would have preferred something he could have reacted to, taken immediate control over. No, the trouble had accrued in portions. His wife could still ride up the hill on the motorbike, shoot a struck sheep in the head and drag in back down over her back. She screamed at cloudless skies and kicked iron when it wouldn’t bend to her will. Her cancer, however loud it might deride and chastise her, tried but it could not drown out the daily rhythm of the past fifteen years. But the headaches and tiredness which arrested her in the evenings had become worse and her way of moving contracted and stiff, as if planks of wood had been stapled to the backs of her legs and arms.

He jingled the keys in his pockets to announce once again that he was ready to leave. Might lock the house this time, he thought. Connie was upstairs. Her coughs echoed down the stairs, around the corner, past the picture family frames on the wall and out the door. “Everything alright up there, darling? We’ve got to get a move on if we want to catch that plane.”

“Give me a bloody minute,” came the answer. Owen smiled and went out to start the truck.