Best Kept Secret by Chris Green
‘Van Morrison wanted to be a vet,’ the man says.
‘Who?’ says the girl, not looking up from the book she is reading.
‘Van Morrison, you know. Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side Of The Road.’
‘Oh! Him!’ the girl says, hoping this will put an end to the conversation. She is not here to listen to geeky middle-aged men in paisley shirts talking about portly crooners. She has aspirations. She just needs a little downtime at the moment to get over a disappointment.
‘When he was at school, he wanted to be a vet. Then his father bought him a saxophone.’
‘That’s nice,’ the girl says, pulling her black sunglasses down from their resting place on her forehead.
The man doesn’t take the hint. ‘I was using close on 50 gigabytes a week just browsing on my iPhone and I was texting and messaging non-stop. And then there was the streaming. That took it up to 100,’ he continues. ‘What about you? Tracey, isn’t it?’
‘I think I was probably on more than that,’ says Tracey. ‘If I had used my phone any more they would have had to surgically remove it. Now. …… Can I get back to my book?’
‘I don’t know how I became so addicted,’ Dirk says. ‘I’m more of an outdoor person really.’
Tracey continues to blank him.
‘I had to bite the bullet and come along here,’ he says. He doesn’t tell her that his partner, Domino was knocked down texting a friend while crossing a busy London thoroughfare. Domino died from the injuries she sustained. Although this was six months ago Dirk can’t bring himself to talk about it. Instead, he continues to elaborate on his own habit, which through his days and nights of loneliness became worse.
‘When I wasn’t on the phone,’ he says. ‘I was on the laptop. When I wasn’t on the laptop, I was on the tablet. I took the phone to bed. I had an app to wake me if there were any status updates, another to tell me if I had any messages, another to let me know if I had any tweets. In the end, I was awake all night. I don’t like being awake all night.’
He awaits some kind of response. None is forthcoming.
‘Unless of course, it’s with someone nice,’ he adds, boldly. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way.’
Tracey doesn’t respond. She feels he is getting more creepy by the minute. Why is it that men feel that she is another country to be conquered or colonised? Where did she read this?
They are at Best Kept Secret, a digital detox retreat in Cornwall. There is no phone signal here and no Wi-Fi. You would have to drive several miles to get any kind of reception on your device. It is so remote that even the postman has trouble finding it. In addition, no TVs or radios are allowed here. You are permitted to bring just three books for a week-long stay. The centre has the express aim of changing people’s habits. Best Kept Secret goes one step further than Unplugged Weekend, reSTART and other establishments dealing with Internet Addiction Disorder. It is not interested in weekenders. It is so serious in its aims that during your stay it doesn’t allow you off-site. They store your car keys in a safe in case you are tempted to leave.
‘Katie …. Price,’ Dirk reads from the cover of the novel that Tracey is holding aloft. ‘The …. Comeback ….. Girl. Is it good?’
‘I’m enjoying it, yes,’ Tracey says.
‘I’m reading Van Morrison’s biography,’ he says. ‘You can borrow it when I’ve finished if you like.’
‘Well, Dirk, did you say? Perhaps, Dirk, you might want to get back to it and let me get on with my novel.’
‘Have you reached an exciting bit?’ he asks.
Tracey ignores him. She pulls her faux leather jacket around her to cover her cleavage and turns away.
Dirk looks around for someone else to talk to. There is no-one. Some of the guests are in the life drawing class and some are in the Pilates session. Others are in NLP therapy or else in the quiet meditation room. A couple of them are in physiotherapy for RSI. Dirk finds the whole atmosphere of withdrawal within the centre claustrophobic. He prefers it out here on the patio. He can listen to the birdsong and take in the aroma of wild roses and pennyroyal.
Although one usually thinks in terms of videos, anything can go viral on the Internet. Whether it’s a photo, an animation, an article, a quote, a tweet, a person, an animal, an idea, an argument, a coupon or an upcoming event, virtually anything that is shareable can go viral. Such is the power of hyperspace. All it takes is a handful of shares on social media and the right target audience to trigger an avalanche of sharing. News items, genuine and fake flash round the globe. If the American President were shot it is reckoned that three-quarters of the people in the world would know about it within fourteen minutes.
This is of course under normal circumstances. As it happens the American President has not been shot, but the transatlantic internet pipeline that joins Europe to the US has been down for two days. This is unprecedented. The world is waiting for something to happen. The crisis has generated record sales of newspapers but they have no news. Instead, there is a wealth of speculation. There are suggestions that terrorism is behind the breach in the pipeline. The Telegraph says it has all the hallmarks of a Russian cyber attack. The Sun blames it on Jihadis. The Express is torn between blaming in on illegal immigrants and the storms that are coming this way. The Mail doesn’t refer to it. concentrating instead on statins and house prices.
Dirk is unaware of the turn of events in the wider world. He doesn’t know that there has been a hiccup in hyperspace. All he knows is that he is completely at a loss in the non-digital world. Without his devices, he finds it difficult to bond with the others at the centre. Most of them seem to come from the corporate world, whilst he himself is a bit of a dreamer. He has always eked a living in the margins of society, drifting aimlessly from one job to another. Domino shared his quasi-alternative views. The irony of her demise is that she was an eco-campaigner. She hardly used her phone. Life, he feels, is full of contradictions.
Being in the confines of the centre has only served to remind him how much he misses Domino. Some of the others at Best Kept Secret have managed to find a modicum of solace in treatment or quiet contemplation, but he has not. In three days there he has become increasingly restless and edgy. He is desperate for some human contact, some love and understanding.
Tracey has now finished her Katie Price, her Sophie Kinsella and her Jojo Moyes novels. Dirk finds her once again on the patio. With nothing left to read, she stares into space.
‘It is against the law to have a pet dog in Iceland,’ Dirk says, hoping that Tracey might either be a dog lover or a dog hater in which case he has interesting facts about cats at the ready.
Tracey does not seem to have a view about the Nordic lack of tolerance for man’s best friend. She continues to stare into space. This provides a cue for Dirk to play his cat card and also refer to Tracey’s gaze.
‘The first cat in space was a French cat named Félicette in 1963,’ he says. ‘She was black and white.’
Tracey has no view about feline celebrities.
Dirk has other facts at his fingertips. Before he came in here, he often spent the whole dayspent many an afternoon browsing trivia sites. He is about to tell Tracey that Coca-Cola would be green if colouring weren’t added to it, when they are joined on the patio by Echo.
Echo looks tanned and sporty and is probably nearer his age than Tracey. She has beautiful brown eyes and a winning smile. Dirk feels he might be able to get along with Echo. And what a great name! He noticed her earlier when she arrived in a brightly coloured VW camper earlier. She came over to him to introduce herself. He was further encouraged when she showed a preference for the mung bean dahl over the oatmeal power bowl at lunch. And he might have imagined it. But didn’t she compliment him on his floral print shirt? She seems more relaxed than most of the burnt-out event organisers and ad executives inside. It is hard to imagine that she has Internet Addiction Disorder. She is even able to keep from fidgeting her fingers.
Without a device to play with, most of the others, himself included, do not know what to do with their hands. This is one of the often overlooked difficulties of digital device withdrawal. They don’t tell you about all of the side effects associated with Internet Addiction Disorder when you arrive. Some are fiddling with their spectacles, their zips, their shoelaces, or rearranging the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery on the table. Dirk has found himself playing a lot with the loose change in his pocket.
Following her break up with Blake, the last thing Echo needs is another alpha male who has to be the centre of attention. Nor does she want someone who will stare with wonder at her hair or hang on her every word. She is looking for a sensitive man who will understand her needs. She looks Dirk up and down. They smile at one another.
‘What is your favourite Dr Seuss book?’ she asks.
It is not a question that Dirk has often been asked, but as the only one that he knows is The Cat In The Hat, this is his answer.
‘You’ve not read The Butter Battle Book then,’ Echo says.
‘What’s it about?’ asks Dirk. He is anxious to keep this conversation going.
‘It is about a land where two hostile cultures, the Yooks and the Zooks,’ Echo says. ‘They live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The Yooks wear blue clothes and the Zooks wear orange. The dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an arms race where each comes up with ever more deadly weapons, the result of which is mutually assured destruction.’
‘There is a moral to the tale then,’ Dirk says. ‘I will have to read it when I get out of here. I’ve nearly finished Van Morrison’s biography, so it’s a shame that I didn’t know about it before I signed up.’
‘Van Morrison. You like Van Morrison?’
‘Well yes. I do, rather.’
‘I adore Van Morrison,’ Echo says.
‘That’s great. Only some women find him ….. a little …..’
‘No, not exactly.’
‘No. ….. I was going to say, shouty. Some women find him a little shouty.’
‘Surely not,’ Echo says. ‘Van is the man.’
‘Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance.’
‘It’s the middle of the day,’ Echo says. ‘But you are right. Why not?’
It seems improbable that all the global communication pipelines could be breached at the same time. There are around five hundred different submarine cables spanning every ocean. But this is what appears to be happening. One by one they are failing. With just the transatlantic pipelines out, the possibility of some kind of rational explanation remained, excessive movement in a major tectonic plate causing sudden or greater than expected continental drift, perhaps. But what about those spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? The likelihood of the failings being from natural causes has now completely disappeared. There must be a more sinister explanation. And what is happening to the satellites in orbit? Little by little the digital world is breaking up. Sabres rattle, but then this is nothing new. Power struggles seem to be part of the human condition. The internet pipeline crisis is unlikely to fuel much of a conflict as most of the weapon systems will no longer function.
While across the board the younger generation starts to experience withdrawal symptoms, many of the older generation can remember that just twenty or so years ago, there was no internet. Perhaps it is a case of selective memory, but many reflect that life was better. Things were simpler. There was not the urgency to be in communication with everyone all the time. You could put things off, chill out. Up and down the country older people experience a feeling of relief that they do not have to check their missed calls and emails, respond to social media statuses or put updates on to their computers. Before all this technology took hold, things still got done. In many ways, it was easier to get things done. Back then there were a few mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make person-to-person calls. And you had to be in range. And even then you had to shout loudly. And they were not what you would call compact. You would have difficulty getting one in your jacket pocket.
‘Do you know, I don’t miss my devices at all,’ Dirk says. They are about to leave Best Kept Secret after their stay. Dirk has been there ten days and Echo a week.
‘Nor do I,’ Echo says. ‘I don’t think I will even switch my phone back on.’
‘Better off without them. I’ll think I will give my tablet away.’
‘Gives you a different perspective on life, doesn’t it?’
‘The freedom to say no.’
‘Not that you did too much of that.’
‘Ha, ha,’ says Echo, hitting him on the arm with her Quicksilver backpack.
‘Just think of all those poor people that still have to grapple with that insane deluge of trash in their feeds day in day out.’
‘They will find out one day …… or not.’
‘Anyway, here we are, footloose and fone free,’ Dirk says.
‘Shall we go surfing to celebrate?’ Echo says. ‘I think Summerleaze Beach would be good. It’s west facing. The swell should be just right.’
‘Don’t know it,’ Dirk says. ‘Is it far?’
‘It’s north of here. Bude,’ Echo says.
‘Bude? Isn’t that where the secret listening base intercepts the traffic from the transatlantic internet pipeline?’ Dirk says.
‘You are still doing it,’ Echo says. ‘You have to let go of all this mental floss.’
‘But don’t you wonder what’s been happening in the world while we’ve been in there?’
‘Same old, I should think. Political posturing, smouldering racism, celebrity indiscretions. Nothing ever changes really, does it?’
‘You’re right.’ Dirk says. ‘Let’s go and get some air into our lungs.’
‘Then perhaps we can book into that nice hotel that looks out on to the ocean,’ Echo says. ‘And you can show me that thing you want to do with dark chocolate.’
© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved