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The Irritation of Small Things

Gad has left the bloody coffee pot upside down in the sink again. He can’t have. But he has. There it is.

Natalie stares at the coffee pot so long and so intently that her house AI mistakes her stillness for concentration and asks whether she would enjoy listening to a piece of specially selected music in her meditation time. She tells the house AI to fuck off, and off the house AI fucks.

He knows how she feels about the coffee pot. It’s an antique. She unearthed it herself on a summer expedition to the landfill digs when she was young, only just 46. The coffee pot is more than five hundred years old and pristine apart from one small crack in the glass lip, easily fixed with her pocket thermal. Someone threw it out in the Era Of Waste and she rescued it and made it whole again. It is one of the great joys of her life to make coffee in the old way every morning, to inhale the steam off the steeping beans, to pour her own cup. Yes, the food synthesiser could make the coffee for them both, or they could get some any time from the communal kitchen on the island. But she likes doing it and Gad never turns down a cup when offered. Making the coffee is her thing. And all she asks, all he has to do is just swirl the grounds and the water around and tip them into the block composter. That’s it. Is it too much to ask?

She stares at the coffee pot upside down in the sink. A hot dark feeling wells up inside her. The grounds will have solidified into a clumped mess. She’ll have to reach her hand inside and grab the wet mass, tip it into the composter bit by bit. It feels gross. More than that, it feels disrespectful of him personally to her personally. He doesn’t appreciate her work. He doesn’t understand her at all. This whole pair bonding has been a mistake, all the things they appeared to have in common were an illusion, he doesn’t care for her, in fact he is self-centred and dependent. How can they hope to raise a child together?

“Bugger,” she says, “absolute toss. It’s happening again.”

There is a well-known problem with human beings, which is that we are not well-suited to happiness. Evolution kept us alive, got us to procreate, kept our children alive but it had no interest at all in making us appreciate what we have. Instead our instincts lurch us forward, greedily seeking more resources, more adventure, more discovery, more love, more enjoyment, more experience. This was how the Era Of Waste ended up pumping irreplaceable oil out of deep sea beds and using it to make – for example – small red plastic horses for children to take home from a party. Our minds tend to focus not on what we have but on the small red plastic horse we don’t have. Not on what is right but on what is wrong. When nothing much is wrong, our brains find smaller and smaller discomforts to be disproportionately upset by. A princess, legendarily, can feel a single pea under a dozen mattresses. Natalie is well aware of the problem.

She reviews her options. Obviously, there are the hormone strips. Inside her skull, a few genes tweaked over a few generations using the Banks Method, all the mood-altering chemistry she desires any time she wants it. It is the easy way to solve these little problems. Arguing couples look into each others’ eyes, generate a bit of the old dopamine, a touch of testosterone, a soupcon of ecstasy: back in blissful sexy love. Natalie could just make herself feel better about the coffee pot.

But where does it end? Pavel on the other side of the park made himself thrilled to sit through his wife’s infinite lectures on the practical applications of string theory. But Natalie’s pretty sure that when she mentioned garden twine it gave him a semi. Altering brain chemistry has its limits. Use sparingly and proceed with caution.

Well, what about a visit to history? She could step into any part of the recent past and experience it as if it were happening around her right now through transcranial stimulation. That’s a tried-and-tested method of sorting yourself out, she’s done it many times. Go and visit the history of this actual island during the worst parts of the Era of Waste, when the Scottish seas were choked with plastics and poisonous chemicals and the beaches were thick with dying birds. Spend ten minutes as a disposable mech soldier in the Water Wars, all emotions suppressed except for rage and blood-lust. Hold your children in your arms as the tides rise in Bangladesh or Miami and know there’s no escape, pray you have the strength to help them to a quick death. Or just live for a few minutes with the anxious lonely inner twitch of early 21st century information flood, when everyone became convinced that everyone else around them was a dangerous moron. That’ll sort you out, Natalie. Come on now, coffee pots?

She could do it. It would help. She could visit any of a thousand pasts for just a few minutes and return pitifully grateful for the objectively wonderful life she is actually living. That was what she loved about her coffee pot, in fact. Those summers sifting slowly through the garbage of the Era of Waste was a way to connect to a strange and terrible past, to hold things those people had held, to feel in the pads of her fingers that she was no different really to them. None of it was obligatory but it was recommended. In the same way that previous generations had sent their children to live with monks or to do good works among the poor so as to connect with their societal values, so the norm was to spend a little time – a year or five – working with the continuing clean-up of the past. The long setting-to-rights.

Ah, but the sense of superiority. That was also a problem. The moment you entered the past, you had to guard against the terrible temptation to feel incredibly superior to all those stupid generations who’d gone before.

Natalie had stood in the waste dumps of the 20th and 21st centuries. She and her team had sifted through the discarded objects, prising them apart and gently reclassifying them. Working with handheld tools and wearing lightweight gloves and rebreathers, they pulled to pieces a baby’s nappy three centuries old, separated out the reusable plastic elements, the fibrous pulp and the compostable waste. They pulled out and cleaned elegant glass bottles. They sifted out charming silky plastic bags, put by the ones with the most beautiful logos and dispatched the rest to be turned into objects that would take advantage of their longevity: insulation and lightweight bedding for remote preservation communities, woven watertight linings for homes dug into the earth in the hot wet places. If you have objects that’ll last without rotting for a thousand years, you’re really obligated to find a thousand-year-long use for them. It was fascinating and rewarding work – she and her team had bonded every evening over beers, barbecues and discussion.

But at some point the conversation always went the same way. Superiority rose up in the blood. How could they do it, someone would say. They were a bunch of total bloody idiots. Hard to imagine we’re even the same species. What did they think would happen. Natalie had sat through those sessions, even joined in, feeling her blood pump thickly and her skin prickle with excitement as they thought of more insults for their ancestors. But the next day it was always the same. One thing leads to another, your brain practises something and then keeps on going. The morning after a session like that, Ophir would start criticising Quoy for how he was sorting the bottles. Ansel would tell Ophir she should keep her eyes on her work. What are you, some kind of Waster? How dare you, Cate would say, don’t you know what Ophir has done for our knowledge of deep-water phytoplankton?

The problem that remains when everything else is solved is the problem of being human. Ansel was in love with Quoy but Quoy didn’t like him. Cate wanted Ophir to notice her for her work, and Ansel had said something that made her think he’d noticed her feelings even though he hadn’t, it was just a misunderstanding. And the more you criticise, the more you want to criticise. It had taken Natalie about three years to work out what had gone on there. And they’d been an effective team – they’d had a good time, they’d worked well together, they each had their souvenirs to enjoy. Natalie had found the coffee pot that day, after the big argument. It had felt like such a beautiful moment – this exquisite glass object retrieved almost whole from the sucking mud – they’d all fallen silent from their bickering at last.

Gad knew that story. It was an object that represented something to her – friendships from her youth, things that could be rescued and yes, also the hope that momentary tensions could be put aside. This was what he was treating so casually. That coffee pot was her actual, literal soul. What a total arse the man was.

So. Activating the history machine via transcranial stimulation would make her grateful, yes. But it would also make her feel intensely, monumentally superior. So much better than almost every other human who’d ever lived. And that typically wasn’t a good place to start in, for example, having a conversation with your husband.

“House,” Natalie says, “do you have that list of things I should do when I’m feeling really irritated by Gad’s absolute nonsense?”

“Certainly,” says the House AI, “shall I read that to you now?”

“Obviously,” Natalie says, “why would I ask for it and not want it read?”

The House AI has certain algorithmic processes to help it determine its inhabitants’ moods. Sensing her blood pressure, her heart rate, the changes in her blood solutes, it could tell to a 78% certainty that she was feeling anger.

“Natalie,” begins the House AI, “I wonder whether you’d like to talk about your feelings.”

“Just read the bloody list,” she says.

Like the enjoyment of coffee, the list, of course, is another element of human life that hasn’t changed in millennia. Go for a walk, says Natalie’s own voice to herself. Exercise, she says. Enjoy the natural world, she says. Speak to a friend, speak to one of your psychodaskoi, spend an hour meditating, listen to music, write it down, offer it up, vent it out, let it be. The same things that have always worked. There are people who don’t want to be human anymore – who take all the implants, and use all the chemicals, and try to commune with the machines in one way or another – but if you want to be human there is a limited set of unchanging solutions for the problem of how incredibly annoying other humans are.

Natalie walks along the circular island path, thinking about the coffee pot. The curlews are calling over the heather, the pairs dance in the sky circling one another, chasing and returning; they were once almost extinct and now like so many species they are out of danger, there is a permanent place for them in the many NatureSafe zones of the planet. And Natalie fumes over all the ways she can think of that Gad simply doesn’t respect her. Talking to her when she’s trying to read. Interrupting her just when she’s thinking something out. Always making fun, always with a stupid joke, disrespectful.

In the shelter of the Bay of Skail, two wave-walkers on light e-foil boards skim between the diving black-headed rittocks with their bright orange beaks and the speckled whitemaa gulls. The waters of the island are full of muscular sinuous fish, herring and spur-dog, big-mouthed torsk and fat frilled wolf-fish. Whatever the wave-walkers spear today will be on the communal table tonight, alongside the simple, tasty food prepared in the island’s shared kitchens. Natalie is momentarily distracted, remembering the day she and Gad caught a forty-kilo ling and had to sling it between their two bikes to get it back to the kitchens. They made up a song about them in the eating hall that day, how did it go? We’ll go cycling with a ling, we’ll keep rolling with our ling, we’ll sing the song of ding-a-ling. Something like that. None of them were professionals. Another thing you have to keep on learning is how to enjoy what you have, even if it’s a not-very-well-written song.

Natalie sits on the grass looking at the blue-green-grey-bright water of Skail Bay. The waves peel off from the ocean, each time with enough energy that she believes they might escape and each time they return frothy and excited to the great sea. The colours are woven like the weft of a tapestry – running in lines of cream and azure, navy and turquoise. The bridge to the mainland glimmers; in the distance the faint pop of the approaching half-hourly maglev train. The sun will set late today – it’s the middle of the year and this far north it’ll still be light at 11 pm. Gad will be back from his music festival just as the blue sky deepens to indigo, to velvet. He’ll have found a new tune for them to work on together – him on the pipe and her on the fiddle. And the feeling will well up in her again that this life is too perfect not to share. It’s time now – they’re halfway through life. They have seventy years or so left, time enough but not so long as to wait another decade. It could be their child wading in the surf, spotting queenies and spoots and digging them out.

The phone clipped to the helix of her ear gently pulses with vibration. It’s one of her psychodaskoi – the group of advisors she’s chosen to talk things through with, because every functional human society has always made room for the healing power of conversation with wiser and older people. Natalie’s has a Jewish leaning – Gad’s psychodaskoi group is centred around Inuit culture. Others have groups that are based in a shared love of clonal trees or infrastructure projects or certain kinds of art. They all look to find meaning, to continually define and refine what is important and worthwhile in life.

Brae’s holo appears next to Natalie and starts speaking before Natalie’s even said hello. Brae’s voice is warm and husky. She’s one hundred and twenty three years old – whatever Natalie has seen, Brae’s seen more.

She says: “What's Gad done now?”

And Natalie laughs. “Am I that predictable?”

“You want me to lie?”


“Then no, you’re not predictable at all. I just happen to be a very powerful and talented psychic. You never ever complain about your husband.”

“Oh goodness I’m absolutely mad.”

“You’re a human. What’s he done?”

Natalie tells her about the coffee pot. Feeling more and more ridiculous as she says it.

“It just feels like he doesn’t care about me at all,” she ends, “like he’s trying to frustrate me. Now I’m hearing myself this sounds like nothing.”

Brae is silent for a long time. The curlews call and Natalie watches the wagtails hop through Brae’s shimmering image.

“Maybe he is trying to frustrate you,” says Brae at last.

“What? Like, he hates me?”

“No. You’re thinking of having a child. You’ve spoken about it many times. You’re getting ready to stop using contraception. So maybe yes, he’s trying to provoke you.”

“Because he doesn’t want a child?”

“Does he want a child?”

Natalie thinks. She and Gad have spoken about this so often. How he looks forward to taking his child on the great maglev crossing of Europe – how they’ll learn to ride together, visit dozens of NatureSafe zones. How fun it will be to take a child to school every day, to walk through the arboretum together on dreich days. “He does,” she says.

“But…” prompts Brae.

What but? What could there be? What could have happened that might make… oh. There it is.

“But our friend’s son Saul has just decided he wants to make his life off-world. Terraforming Valles Marineris on Mars. It’s a twenty-year commitment.”

Brae, who knows what she’s doing, keeps silent. The two of them stare at the bay. This site has been inhabited by humans for more than seven thousand years. It must have happened many times in history that a boy or a girl would go off in search of adventure and their parents knew they wouldn’t see them again for a decade or more. If they ever saw them again. It is a human grief. And they didn’t even have phones or holos.

“We’re both frightened by this story,” says Natalie, “even though we don’t talk about it. I know Gad is frightened. The love you can put into a child and then… they have to find their own way.”

“Yes,” says Brae, “the more you love the more your heart can break. That’s how it’s always worked.”

“Isn’t it possible to… fix it?”

They’d fixed a lot. NatureSafe zones covered more than one third of the planet, places where the wild life of the world was prioritised over humans, and this in itself was a way of prioritising humans. Their ability to generate sustainable non-polluting power was almost unlimited. Deep-space ships were even now arriving on Earth-like planets in other solar systems filled with people who yearned for adventure and risk. Human life had been mostly organised in human-sized units, like on this island of three thousand people. A group where you could make a meaningful difference, which could come together to make bigger decisions but which meant you didn’t have to travel too far to find one you liked better if you got annoyed. All that was left were the unfixable problems.

“You can get an android,” says Brae.

But this wasn’t the solution. Natalie had seen the android children who always did what you wanted and never grew up. There were other communities centred around them, and well, they seemed to make some people happy.

“You have a child you open yourself to the unknown,” says Natalie.

“Like when you have a partner,” says Brae.

Gad calls Natalie on her walk back from the bay. He’s happy, bubbling over with music, he wants to tell her about the harmonic sistrum player he met – they’re going to have a virtual jam session next week in the island’s auditorium. She’s pleased to hear about it. His voice is almost playing a tune.

“By the way,” he says, “I left the coffee pot just how you don’t like it. I’m sorry. I was in a hurry and I forgot.”

“It’s OK,” she says, “it’s just a coffee pot.”

“Well,” he says, “I said I forgot. But I didn’t really. I was thinking about Saul going off-world. And what if we…” he pauses, “I remembered the coffee pot as I closed the door. I could have come back for it. But I felt… I didn’t want to think about you in that moment. I wanted to enjoy the festival. And not think about you, and the child. I’m sorry.”

This too is the only happiness there’s ever been. Not getting everything right, not fixing human relationships. But recognising, realising, thinking about how much we want other people and want to be wanted back.

“This is why it’ll be OK,” says Natalie. “Even if our child goes to the outer worlds, Gad. Even if it wants to have an android lover or live in a deep-sea bubble. Even then. We’ll get angry and we’ll do annoying things and then we’ll be just like this. And say sorry and I love you.”

Gad smiles and puts his holo arm around her. She finds herself yearning for his return. Maybe she will turn off her ovulation suppression even tonight.

“Wait,” says Gad, “you seem very enlightened today. Are you saying you didn’t notice the coffee pot?”

Natalie watches a gull wheel west toward the setting sun. Just how evolved is she prepared to pretend to be? She could say she’d seen it but hadn’t been bothered by it. She could say she didn’t care about material things that much. She could say: one day our child will smash that coffee pot and that’s the whole point.

But, if you’ve decided to be a human, then you keep on being a human.

“Oh my god,” she says, “Of course I fucking noticed.”

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