No Windows by Chris Green
Pablo Picasso said, if I don’t have red paint, I use blue. You have to be able to adapt to changes of fortune. I did not plan my early retirement, but here I am on a Tuesday morning sitting in my recliner with a toasted teacake and a cup of English Breakfast tea. I am listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. I find Otto Klemperer’s interpretation on this digitally re-mastered recording both heroic and warmly tender.
The phone rings. I wait for it to go on to answer. It doesn’t. It keeps ringing. It is my wife, Amy. She is at her friend Rosalind’s house, going over the church flower arranging schedules.
‘Why didn’t you answer the phone?’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying for ages.’
‘I was out in the garden,’ I lie.
‘We’re having trouble getting onto Rosalind’s computer,’ she says.
Neither Amy or Rosalind are good with computers. I recall I had to explain to Amy that there wasn’t an any key, and when Rosalind got her first PC, she thought the DVD ROM drive was a cup holder.
‘Perhaps the router needs rebooting,’ I say.
‘The what?’ she says.
‘The router, the box with the blue light that gets you onto the internet.’
‘No, it’s not the box, it’s the laptop.’
‘Is there a message? What does it say on the screen?’
‘Can’t you turn the music down? I can hardly hear what you are saying,’ she says. It is the end of the first movement. I love the way Klemperer slows it down to realise the full majesty of the symphony. Not many conductors do this. They try to finish the movement at breakneck speed. I tell Amy there is a quieter passage coming up.
‘There will be a message on the screen to tell you what Windows is doing,’ I say.
‘That’s just it,’ she says. ‘Windows isn’t doing anything. It says Windows is unavailable. Please try again later.’
‘But Windows isn’t something online. It’s software that’s resident on the hard drive,’ I say.
‘That’s what it says,’ she says.
I have never come across this message before. It is a real puzzler.
‘It must be a virus,’ I say. ‘What has Rosalind been doing? Does she keep her firewall and virus checkers up to date?’
‘I shouldn’t think that she knows what they are. I don’t. You always take care of that for me.’
‘Does she go on to any dodgy sites?’
The Andante Con Moto is just starting. This is divine. I am anxious to give my full attention to Beethoven, but I am equally keen to stay married, despite Amy’s shortcomings on IT and her lack of reverence for Ludwig, and her tendency to over-water the succulents.
I hear her asking Rosalind about her browsing habits. She comes back to me to say that Rosalind uses it for theatre reviews and gardening tips, but sometimes Rosalind’s daughter Autumn goes on to YouTube or Spotify when she comes to stay.
‘No it won’t be that,’ I say. ‘Look, love, I’ll just fire up my laptop and see if I can find out anything.’
The main theme is just coming in now. Klemperer handles this with a subtlety and grace that more recent interpreters of the work cannot manage. It is heavenly.
‘I’ll phone you back in five minutes when I’ve checked on Google,’ I say.
I lose myself once again in the hymnal resonance of the Andante. It is sublime. Towards the end of the movement, I switch on the laptop. ‘Windows is unavailable. Please try again later,’ my screen says. How bizarre! How can an operating system that is based in the kernel of the machine be temporarily unavailable? It is either there or not there. Where could this command originate? I try the Esc key and all the Function keys in the hope of Windows starting or resuming. Nothing!
I dig out Lance’s phone number. Lance handles all of my computer problems and upgrades. He is bound to know what is happening. The Scherzo is just beginning. I pause it for a moment. I’m not sure Lance likes classical music. He listens to Kings Of Leon and Kasabian. Also, Lance baffles me with a lot of long technical words. He imagines that everyone understands what he is talking about when he talks about digitizers, bots, and crawlers. I listen and just say yes and no in the right places. He usually manages to come up with a solution.
‘Hi Frank,’ he says. ‘Long time. You got a PC problem too?’
Lance knows that when I phone him it is not going to be to invite him round for dinner.
‘Something like that,’ I say. ‘I didn’t like the way you said, too’
‘You’re going to tell me that your Windows has gone AWOL aren’t you?’ he says.
‘That’s right,’ I say. How did you know? Rosalind’s is the same too. What is happening?’
‘No idea, I’m afraid, mate. And I can’t get online to find out. I’m as mystified as you are. You’re phoning from the landline, right? Surprised that’s still on, to be honest. If you haven’t already, you will find that your mobile is dead.’
I check my Samsung. Lance is right. The phone display just says No chance, buddy Not that I use it much anyway. I preferred them when you just used them to make phone calls. You don’t really need them to watch the sky at night or set the timer on the central heating.
‘I’m going to check with my mate, Jago, to see if Apple is down too,’ says Lance. ‘But I’d put good money on it.’
I don’t use the computer that much either. I research family history and sometimes go on eBay, but I hardly use Twitter or Facebook and I don’t do Instagram or TikTok or anything like that. My emails are nearly all spam. And I have to spend ages keeping the bloody thing updated. It would not be the end of the world if it did not work for a while. I suppose I had my fill of computers when I worked for the civil service, before the accident. These days I prefer to read a good book.
Amy is not pleased with my progress report. She is used to my being able to fix things. She feels I should be able to work some kind of magic.
‘How are we going to work out the church rotas and what about the parish magazine that Rosalind produces? It’s due at the end of the week and she hasn’t started.’
‘I’m sure it will be sorted out soon,’ I say.
I’m not sure, of course. I have a bad feeling about this. It does not seem like an everyday kind of issue. We seem to be talking macro, not micro here. I imagine there might be more important matters than Rosalind’s church magazine that are affected.
Amy and I have not had that much to do with our neighbours. We don’t like the late-night comings and goings and their noisy summer barbecues. We have regular conversations about how we can get them to move. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Daz Otley on the doorstep.
‘Eh oop,’ he says. ‘Just wondering if you were having any problems with your telly, like.’
Like what, I am thinking. It is not snobbery or a North-South thing, or even a prejudice about the way his belly hangs over his trousers. Some people just don’t come across well and Daz is one of them. Why isn’t he at work anyway? Has he lost his job?
‘Only our telly is saying that it doesn’t work anymore,’ he continues.
‘Is that what it says?’ I ask. ‘On the screen……. like.’
‘What it actually says is we are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error, whatever that is when it’s at home.’
I wait for him to add, like. He does not. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I hope that ours is working because they are screening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Proms tonight with that new Ukrainian conductor, whose name I can never pronounce. Do you know the one I mean?’
Daz doesn’t. I imagine he is thinking of buses in years gone by.
Daz clearly wants me to check our TV. I invite him in and I turn on the new 64-inch smart TV that Amy insisted we buy to watch the new series of The Crown.
‘We are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error,’ the display says. I press a series of buttons but the message stays on the screen. The internet settings tab displays ‘unable to connect with operating system’
After Daz has left, I put on Einaudi’s Una Mattina, to calm myself. As I drift off to Ludovico’s soft piano, I try to put cares aside. I settle into the pranayama breathing technique that my acupuncturist, Li taught me during my course of treatment. I let the haunting hypnotic melodies wash over me with gentle waves of calm. I visualise white temples and imagine clouds drifting gently across the summer sky. Conjure of images of country lanes and babbling books. By the penultimate track of the album, Nuvoli Bianche, a melody even Ludwig would have been dazzled by, I am suitably chilled. Computers and mobile phones are but a distant memory lost in the mists of time.
During the final track, Amy blusters in, bringing with her chaos and uncertainty. I obey her unspoken command to turn the music down.
‘Waitrose is closed because the tills aren’t working, and I couldn’t get any money out of the ATM because they are not working either,’ she screams. ‘And, they tell me that you can’t get petrol, although there is a big queue at the pumps of people who haven’t realised it yet.’
‘Calm down, dear.’
‘And, on the way back from the supermarket the traffic lights through the town had stopped working and there was a tailback after an accident on the roundabout so I had to take a detour and I got lost and the satnav’s not working. What’s going on?’
‘It’ll probably all be back to normal later.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘It’s just a blip, I’m sure.’
‘And now the phones aren’t working either.’
‘But we spoke to each other on the phone earlier.’
‘Well! They’re not working now. Try it!’ She hurls the headset across the room at me. Fortunately, it misses.
‘I suppose phones need an operating system too. Everything’s digital these days, you see.’
‘How can you be so calm? With your head in your music as if nothing has happened.’
‘But nothing has happened, dear. The world’s still spinning. We’re still here.’
‘Is that your answer? Well! I’m glad the world’s not digital too. That’s all I can say.’
There is no TV, so there will be no broadcast news. Also, there will be no newspapers. I speculate as to what the emphasis of the stories they would be running with might be, as the country, indeed the whole world grinds to a halt. The red tops might be talking about the looting taking place with stores closed given the absence of CCTV, the millions suffering from Facebook withdrawal syndrome and the postponement of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. The broadsheets might be saying what might happen with satellites spinning out of orbit, the collapse of the world’s financial system, and the pollution of the water supply. The Daily Mail would be banging on about the potential rise in illegal immigration, given the lack of border controls. The Express, of course, would be unchanged. Along with its routine celebration of the successes of Brexit, the front page would have a story relating to Diana’s death or new hope of finding Maddie, no matter what crisis was looming in the real world.
We live on a fairly quiet suburban street and people keep themselves to themselves. We are not what you would consider a community. There are few common interests. On our street, we get a handful of dog walkers, mostly in the morning and the evening, but otherwise very few people walking up and down. You become accustomed to the trickle of traffic throughout the day, primarily delivery vans. The houses all have driveways so there is no street parking. From the bay window, you get a good view of the street in both directions. It is unusual to see people gathering outside as they are this afternoon. By about 3 pm, a sizeable group has gathered outside the Bassetts at number 42 and all seem to be talking over each other or gesticulating wildly. Around these parts, a dozen people together in one place constitutes a riot. Having settled our differences, Amy and I go out to investigate. It is not hard to guess what has brought the assembly together.
Other than Julian and Debbie Bassett, we do not know many of the gathering by name, so we introduce ourselves. We are introduced in turn to Ralph and Ruth Robinson, Stefan Jansen, Lee and Kirsty Boss, Cornelia Carrington, Mohandas and Maya Joshi, Roddy and Bonita, Stacy Deal, and Mr and Mrs Stover. Spirited children who have been sent home from school to mixed receptions come and go.
No one has any actual information about what has caused the catastrophe. Opinions range from an alien attack to a blip in earth’s magnetic field. Kirsty Boss thinks it is a scam by Microsoft and Apple to get more money from users. Lee points out that her Linux system has lost its operating system too.
‘I can’t even start my Lexus,’ says Cornelia.
‘All the on-board gadgets,’ laughs Stefan. ‘My Volvo’s fine.’
‘We were booked on a flight to Dehli,’ says Mohandas.
‘Even The Gordon Bennett is closed,’ says Roddy, who having been given the day off work was keen to get a lunchtime pint with his friends.
‘Good thing,’ says Bonita, under her breath. She wants his attention to be on her.
‘Doesn’t anyone remember how life used to be before computers and mobile phones?’ asks Stacy.
‘We were still able to find out what was going on from the newspapers,’ says Stefan.
‘Depends which newspapers you looked at,’ says Ralph.
‘Before newspapers, callers ran from city to city, town to town, shouting out the latest news,’ says Mr Stover. ‘Before that, jesters brought news about a recent conquest or disaster in song.’ Mr Stover, we discover, teaches History.
‘But only to royalty, of course,’ suggests Mrs Stover. ‘Commoners were kept in the dark.’ Mrs Stover, we discover, teaches Sociology.
‘I remember the three-day week coming in,’ says Daz Otley, joining us. ‘My dad said, I’m not working an extra day for anyone.’
No one laughs. Daz might need to do a little work on his stand-up routine.
Our gathering grows as more residents come along to find out what has turned their lives upside down. More speculative guesses are aired. Perhaps it is a new anarchist group. The Illuminati maybe. Eco-terrorists? Might it be GCHQ? H’mmm. Having worked at the so-called spy centre, I keep quiet.
Elmwood Avenue has not to my knowledge ever held a street party. Even the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee passed by without teasing out community spirit. By eight o’clock, though, there is something of a party going down here. People have brought barbecues out along with bottles of wine and cans of beer. I wonder if maybe the off-licence has been looted. Some musicians have brought along guitars and we are having a singsong. The hardships of digital communication are being buried under a new festival spirit. Is that a piano that Julian and Debbie Bassett are wheeling out? Who could imagine that a gathering of relative strangers who just a few hours ago had been stressed out and despondent could be so carefree?
We are told our gatherings are being replicated everywhere. A make-do-and-mend mindset is spreading as people realise they are going to need to be more resourceful, but forty-eight hours on, there is still no explanation for the technological failure. Digital radio, which might have helped to spread news in emergencies is of course off the air and FM and AM were closed down just a few months ago, a move primarily aimed at selling digital radios. The move, like many things changed under the label of progress, is beginning to look a little short-sighted. The maxim, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it went out the window years ago. Nowadays it is more like if it isn’t broke it will be soon. Nothing is built to last. Economies depend on change and renewal.
The initial release from responsibility turns back once more to a sense of concern. The problems are becoming apparent. The supermarkets are closed and food supplies are running out. There are no planes or trains because the services are tied into central computer systems and road transport and private motoring are being run down because of the lack of fuel. It may be in the tanks that feed the pumps but no one has worked out how to dispense it without the help of computers. With container ships’ navigation systems affected too, there is a lot of potential for disaster. Given the complete absence of global communication, Amy is worried about Emily in Florida and Justin in Australia. I keep telling her they work in safe environments. Emily works in design at Disneyland and Justin is a cricketer. It’s not like they are in the Everglades or the Outback. They can look after themselves.
Amy seems to have grown tired of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps I play it too often, but I can’t help it. Alfred Brendel’s elegant finger-work is a delight.
‘I’m going down to the allotment,’ she says. ‘I noticed that the Bassetts were putting the canes up in the back garden for their runner beans earlier. We’re probably all going to need to grow vegetables, you know.’
The Largo in E Major is beginning. The solo piano opening is divine, an oasis in a sea of calm. ‘I’ll pop along later, love, if that’s all right,’ I say.
‘I understand you can’t do a lot of digging with your leg,’ she says. ‘I’ll get Rosalind to come and help me turn the ground over.’
Is this to make me feel bad, I wonder? We took up the allotment last year before the incident and now it is overgrown with weeds. I have not been able to do much to it because of my leg. Twelve months on, I still get nightmares about the episode, sometimes in the middle of the day. It is not an experience you can put away in a drawer and forget about. I had finished my shift. I was coming home from work. Two men dressed in police-style fatigues grabbed me and bundled me into the back of a black Nissan Qashqai, not far from the base. I think they mistook me for someone else, someone higher up. At the lights at the Harry Palmer roundabout going out of town, I managed to open the back door and make a run for it. The first bullet shattered the bone in the upper leg and embedded itself in the flesh. The second bullet caught me in the back of the head and travelled the length of the left side of my brain and exited through the front of my head. I was in hospital for over a month, undergoing one procedure after another. As a result of the first bullet, I walk with a limp. They are still not sure of the extent of the brain damage from the second bullet, but it was enough though for the grandees to retire me from the service as a security risk. My abductors have never been apprehended.
Amy returns from the digging. She says that there were dozens of others down there getting their vegetables in. It was like a community event.
‘One thing was a bit odd, though.’ she says. ‘There was a large typed notice on the notice board which just said, ‘You have less time than you think.’
‘That’s all it said? Nothing about who it was from or anything?’
‘No! That’s all it said. What do you think it could mean?’
Mysteries are multiplying, answers are absent in this windowless world. ‘It is best not to think about it,’ I tell her.
We have a quiet evening listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata interrupted only by Daz Otley wanting to borrow our strimmer so that he can start on his vegetable patch tomorrow. During the final notes of Ashkenazy’s strident arpeggios, the power suddenly goes off. I have been half expecting this. I am only surprised they kept it going so long. After all, the electricity grid must need a computer system. We content ourselves with an early night. I read Sir George Solti’s biography by candlelight and Amy reads The Self Sufficiency Handbook.
In the morning, we find a flyer on the doormat. It just says cryptically, Time is Running Out. Over the next hour or so we discover that everyone has had exactly the same one pushed through their letterbox and no one has seen anyone delivering them. Normally you might think this was a prank, or Jehovah’s Witnesses announcing the end of the world once again. Not given the present circumstances. We gather once again on the street to share our concerns.
We get occasional reports from places within easy reach, but word from farther afield is thin on the ground. Jackson Bell and Scots Jim, two radio enthusiasts live locally. Unfortunately, both might be considered to be questionable sources, what might be seen in literary circles as unreliable narrators.
Jackson Bell is a retired naval radio officer. He lives at the end of our street. He is the one with the Union Flag in his front garden. Jackson is old school. He still has non-digital transmitters and receivers and a shed full of car batteries. He delivers his news with a megaphone from his bedroom window. He tells us that both his man, Ho in China and Nehru in India have gone off the air, since this morning. He does not know what has happened, but their last messages were anxious ones. He is still in touch with Eli in Tel Aviv and Abdul in Baghdad. Both are reporting tension and unrest. Nothing is coming from Ivan in Moscow but is often the case, he says. We can only hope that no news is good news. In my opinion, Jackson Bell does not have a clue what day it is, let alone what might be behind the global OS outage.
Scots Jim is not really Scottish. He isn’t even called Jim. No one is sure how he got his moniker. He dresses like a cold war spy, dark raincoat with the collar turned up and lots of pockets and oversized thick-rimmed glasses. Addressing a gathering of locals, he tells us he picks up messages from agents in the field on his bank of shortwave sets. He is not a great speaker. Some are drifting away. He recognises me, we have passed the time of day on occasion. He comes over to talk to me.
‘You have experience of this sort of thing, don’t you?’ he says. ‘You used to work at the spy base. Now, I’ve got lots of receivers but only got one pair of ears. You speak German or Italian, I expect.’
‘A bit rusty on both, I’m afraid,’ I tell him. ‘My main source of both languages is centred around musical terms.’
‘Never mind, better than nothing.’
‘I don’t like to leave Amy alone in the house.’
‘It will do you good to get out for a bit,’ says Amy, who has been listening. ‘And anyway, Rosalind and I will be down at the allotment. We’re going to put the runner beans and spinach in.’
I wonder if Amy is trying to distract herself because she is worried that there is no news about Justin and Emily, but I do not want to draw attention to this. Australia and Florida do seem further away with each day that passes. I give her a hug and say I will see her later.
I don’t particularly want to accompany Scots Jim but I can’t think of any other excuses. I’ve got to finish reading Sir George Solti’s biography might seem a bit selfish.
Scots Jim’s flat is an emporium of junk. It is as if he has spent his life at car boots and jumble sales with the odd afternoon raiding antique shops and recycling centres. The main room is given over entirely to radio gadgetry. Antennae hang out of both sash windows. Lining three walls, from floor to ceiling are stacks of 1950s-style valve radio equipment. Amongst a sea of static, echoing voices chatter away in an atlas of different languages. For some reason with the whistles and hisses, a lot of them sound Scandinavian.
‘Take a seat,’ he says. I can’t see a chair or anything, so I plonk myself down on an old box radio and survey the bank of receivers in front of me. The room is sweltering. I take off my jacket and unbutton my shirt.
‘It’s all the valves giving off the heat,’ says Jim. ‘You will get used to it.’ He still has his overcoat on.
It is difficult to describe what is taking place here. We monitor crackly voices coming out of the sets. The voices might be coming from another dimension or from the afterlife for all the sense they are making. Periodically Scots Jim will say, ‘Sweden has gone’ or ‘I’ve just lost Helsinki’ or ‘are you getting anything from Rome?’ Rome says stiamo arrivando alla fine, or something. I have no idea what it means. I think fine might mean end.
The fumes from the generator beneath the window are making me feel nauseous. What on earth am I doing here? The guy is nuts.
One of the remaining shortwave transmissions is in German. I can’t make out anything that is being said. Fritz is probably not talking about classical music. Another is French. I could be wrong, but the French one seems to be talking about food. Le dernier repas, something about supper.
‘We are now left with just Germany and France,’ Jim says.
‘I think I’ve got that,’ I say, showing a little exasperation. ‘Why is this? What is happening?’
‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me, with your experience at the base and everything.’
Why is there this automatic assumption that because I worked at the so-called spy base, I was some kind of secret agent? My job was to manage metadata. This involved me sitting in front of a screen making sure international internet traffic was mirrored properly and that there were no blockages in the pipe. While I am still subject to The Official Secrets Act, I can say that I never once got to see any of the data that was being gathered and I certainly did not take part in clandestine undercover work in the field or have a licence to kill.
‘I don’t think that I was in that particular section,’ I tell him, for simplicity.
I can’t help but bring to mind Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, where a group of people in Australia, maybe some of them cricketers, await the arrival of deadly radiation that is spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere.
‘Look! It’s getting late,’ I say. ‘I’m going to get back and see how Amy is.’
‘I think that we’ve just lost Germany,’ he says, as another transmission turns to static.
Amy says she is pleased with her work at the allotment, but I sense something is wrong. She starts to talk about when Justin and Emily were little and we used to take them down round to grandpa’s piece of land where there was an old blue tractor and a rusty brown water pump. And a timber summer house full of chickens and cats. How they used to get excited by the runner beans growing up the canes and have snail races along the flagstones. There is a tear in her eye.
I can no longer hear what she is saying, Her mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. I try to speak, but my utterances too are silent. Time is running out. I can no longer see outside. It is as if there are no windows. I glance at the clock. It says 11:59. Is this it?
Copyright © Chris Green 2022: All rights reserved