Featured post

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Twenty-first Century Banjo

Jimmy was very excited. It was his birthday. And he knew what he was getting as a present. When he was younger, back in the 20th century, he would have hated to know what his presents were before the great day; he loved surprises. But now he was older he had allowed his parents to tell him what he was getting. I n fact, he had chosen what he was to get. And he believed he had chosen well. His parents had allowed him to spend up to five credits and his choice cost just four and a half. That allowed a further half a credit for a couple of Saturn Bars.

He stood for a moment under the infra wash and dried himself quickly in front of the ultra vent. He slipped into his silver suit and ran downstairs. His mother and father were both there smiling broadly. “Happy Birthday, Jimmy” they chorused. And handed him a big card. The card had a 3d picture of the Nostradamus space cruiser on the front. And Jimmy was delighted. He was collecting pictures of space cruisers and the Nostradamus would complete the set. “Sit down, Jimmy, and have your breakfast and then we’ll be off” said his father. “It’s your favourite.” Said his mother and handed him a purple and green capsule. “Thank you, Mum” said Jimmy but he could hardly swallow the pill he was so excited. “Careful, Jimmy, you’ll choke.” She laughed handing him a tube of water. Jimmy chewed as slowly as he could but he hardly tasted the delicious breakfast in his excitement.

“Now, Are you sure you’ve made up your mind?” Said his Father.
“Oh, yes.” Said Jimmy, “I’m certain I j know what I want.”
“Very well, we’d better go or we’ll be late for your appointment.”
“Just let me set the Autovac going.” Said Jimmy’s mother and they headed into the street to climb into the hovercar. They set off for the other side of town down the long, empty boulevards and Jimmy’s heart began to beat in anticipation and, perhaps, just a little apprehension.
“Oh dear, do you think I should have put the autowash on?” Said Jimmy’s mother. There’s a whole pile of silver suits in the wash basket.”
“It’s Jimmy’s day,” laughed his father. “The housework can wait till this afternoon. Besides, you know those new silver suits are coated in Repello-stain and don’t need washing.”
“I know,” grumbled Jimmy’s mother, “But it gives me something to do.”
His father caught Jimmy’s eye in the driving viewer and winked. Jimmy felt very grown up.

At last they pulled up in front of a great shiny plexiglass and steel building with a large flashing red sign that said “United transplants” and underneath in blue neon tubes: “You will – we drill – you thrill.” Jimmy jumped out and rushed up the wide white steps towards the great polished steel doors. Inside the receptionist took Jimmy’s details and they were ushered into a small room at the side of the entrance hall. There were shelves and racks of bottles and flasks of all different colours. At last the door opened and a nurse in a starched white uniform buttoned up to the chin came in. She looked a little severe and Jimmy wondered if this was going to be as easy and painless as promised in the advertising.
“Good morning, young man,” said the nurse, smiling so much and so sweetly that Jimmy felt his fears melt away. “May I ask what you have chosen?”
“The banjo.” Said Jimmy quickly.
“The banjo!” What an excellent choice. “Not very popular but a good investment. You will be the life and soul of any party you go to.”
“Yes,” and I’m having a party tonight.” Said Jimmy.
“If I get the house cleaned in time.” Chimed his mother.
“It’s my birthday, you see,” said Jimmy quickly feeling that perhaps his mother ought to remember that it was his day, not hers.
“And do you have a banjo?” Asked the nurse going over to the shelves and taking down a red bottle.
“We’ve hired one for the week.” Smiled his father.
“Shouldn’t you think of buying one?” Said the nurse smiling back.
“We could never afford the top ups.” He grinned and made a little shrug of his shoulders.
“You wouldn’t want to hinder Jimmy’s musical education, would you? It would be so valuable to him in future life.” Smiled the nurse relentlessly.
“Perhaps we ought to think about it.” Jimmy’s father turned to Jimmy’s mother.
“I need a new Auto-vac first.” She said not smiling as much as the others
“Can we get on?” Said Jimmy just a little impatiently.
“That my boy. Always in a rush.” Grinned his father.
Jimmy’s mother said nothing and the nurse led the way through another door that swished open in front of them and swooshed shut behind.

They were standing in a larger room. Brilliant lights glared down from the ceiling. The walls and floor were shiny white tiles and round the edges of the room there were several gleaming silver and glass machines. Some on wheels, some larger and bolted to the floor. Long pipes and tubes and wires ran between them. In the middle of the room was a large, black chair that had an array of levers and buttons obviously to make it rise and lower and tip and tilt. Directly over the chair was another machine attached to the ceiling and made up of more glass tubes and pipes with a long, narrow drill bit extending down from the centre.

A short round doctor was standing by the chair fiddling with some of the controls. He turned when he heard the swoosh of the door and smiled broadly as they entered.

“Aha.” He smiled. “Welcome in….”
“Jimmy.” Said the nurse.
“Jimmy.” Grinned the doctor. Hop up here on the big chair and we’ll soon have you playing the…”
“Banjo.” Smiled the nurse.
“Banjo.” Went on the doctor. “Is this a permanent installation?”
The nurse shook her head slightly. She made a little face.
“Only temporary? You ought to think about going for permanent. It’ll work out better in the long run. Of course you don’t have to go right up to concert standard but he could make a decent enough living. It’s very economical really.”
“Well, we had been thinking…” said Jimmy’s father.
“No,” said Jimmy’s mother. “Temporary will do.”
“Oh please.” Jimmy turned to his father.
“”No, we’ll do what your mother says.”
“Well, we’ve got a few minutes while the machine warms up.” said the doctor busying himself with the apparatus. “If you want to consider what’s best for the boy.”
“We’ve decided already.” said Jimmy’s mother determinedly.
Jimmy’s father turned to Jimmy and gave him the same little wink that he had done in the hover car. Despite his disappointment Jimmy felt strangely proud and grown up.
“Come on, then.” Said the doctor. “let’s get it over with.”
The nurse helped Jimmy scramble up into the chair. The doctor adjusted the controls so that the chair tilted so that his head was directly under the drilling machine.
“Will it hurt?” said Jimmy slightly worried.
“No, I’ll be fine.” Said the doctor and everyone laughed. “Just keep still and you won’t feel a thing.”
The doctor had clipped the bottle of red liquid into the machine and a high pitched whine came from it as the drill started.
The nurse and Jimmy’s mother and father stood around and smiled encouragingly.
The doctor moved over to a bench at the side of the room, picked up a book and started reading.
“Shouldn’t the doctor be watching?” said Jimmy’s mother.
“Oh no. It’s all automatic from now on.” Said the nurse. We could all go and have a cup of tea if you wanted.
“We’ll stay.” Said Jimmy’s mother firmly.
The silver drill descended lower and lower and began to cut through Jimmy’s skull.
“Are you all right, Jimmy?” said his mother.
“I’m fine. I can’t feel a thing.”
“You see there are no nerve endings in the brain.” Said the nurse comfortingly. “It’s quite without feeling.”

After a few minutes the drill seemed to slow and stop. Liquid moved through glass tubes and then the drill withdrew.
The doctor put down his book.
“There you are. All done.”
Jimmy hopped down from the chair.
“Is that it? Doesn’t it need a plaster or something?” Asked Jimmy’s mother looking worried.
“Don’t fuss.” Said Jimmy’s father.
“You can put a plaster on if you want.” Said the doctor doubtfully. “But it’s probably better not to. It will get stuck in his hair and might hurt when you pull it off. Just hold a hanky over it till it stops oozing.
Jimmy’s father found a big clean white hanky that he folded carefully and gave to Jimmy to hold over the hole in his head.
“Let’s all go home and get ready for the party.” Smiled Jimmy’s father.
“Don’t forget to pay at reception on the way out.” Said the nurse who kept smiling until the door shut behind them.

That evening, Jimmy was almost trembling with excitement. The party was in full swing. All the neighbours from both sides of the street were there as were some of his school chums. The neighbours had glasses of red, green and blue liquid and Jimmy’s friends were all drinking lemonola from squeeze bottles. Jimmy’s father stepped into the middle of the room and clapped his hands. “Attention everybody. Quiet please. It’s time for Jimmy’s birthday present.” He fetched a shiny black case from the side of the room and, laying it on the carpet, he unclipped the brass catches and let it spring open. “Here you are, Jimmy,” he said and he picked up the most beautiful chrome plated five string banjo. Jimmy held it lovingly. It felt so strange. He had never actually held a real banjo before. He had dreamt of this moment. He had imagined how the strings would feel beneath his fingers, how it would feel to be making glorious jangling, crashing banjo music. How his fingers would mover faster and faster as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” neared its racing breakneck climax. How glorious it would be to hear the applause and shouts of praise. Especially from those of his chums.

His father placed a chair for him to sit on. He flexed his fingers and began to pick.

The neighbours shifted uneasily. Little smiles appeared on the lips of Jimmy’s school chums. Even his mother and father began to look anxiously at each other. Jimmy tried to make the music he had imagined in his dreams but all that was pouring from the banjo was a discordant muddle and jangle of notes. The noise was terrible. An elderly lady from two doors up clapped her hands over her ears. Neighbours put their fingers over their mouths. Jimmy’s chums were laughing openly. Jimmy tried desperately to make the music come but all that happened was that the cacophony grew louder and more awful. Neighbours began pulling on their silver coats and children began to jeer. Jimmy began to feel hot and awkward. He could feel himself going red. Tears began to prickle at his eyes. This was dreadful. This was the twenty-first century. It shouldn’t be possible to feel this amount of shame and humiliation. Not now. Not today. Not on his birthday. Suddenly he threw down the chrome and silver instrument and ran sobbing to his bedroom.

Later his father and mother crept up to see him.
“I rang the transplant place. They were very apologetic, of course. It was an easy mistake to make. The nurse just picked the wrong bottle off the shelf. You can’t really blame her.”
Jimmy’s mother made a little snorting noise.
“We’ll make it up to you somehow. Of course, they wouldn’t give us a refund because they said it would have worked perfectly well if we’d had a saxophone about the house.”
“All I can say is,” said Jimmy’s mother, “That it’s a jolly good job we didn’t go for the permanent option.” And they all laughed.