Stardust Silverwobbit cast a critical eye over her outfit – head to this side, head to that – pink suspenders? No, not tonight. She ditched the pink suspenders. A giggle ruffled the back of her nose as she ferreted about in various boxes, coming up with a latex corset (matching knickers), some black fishnet gloves and a contraption that emitted an eerie light from somewhere around her navel. She made another inspection – head to that side, head to this – ok, good to go, let’s hit the clubs.
‘You alright there, Dad?’ she called up the stairs.
There was a muffled grunt and some familiar clanking sounds – he was shuffling his medals again so he’d be ok for the next hour or so. She turned back to her screen. Where first? Recalling her present attire, she thought probably the girlie bar with the streaming 80’s disco. But then most of its traffic came from the American west coast, which wouldn’t have got much beyond its 12-egg breakfast yet, let alone into its collective party frock. Damn it!
A crash. ‘Dad?’
She hit AFK and propelled herself out of the room towards the stairs. The two cats, habitually perched there, had re-located due to a bombardment of pottery, which was now scattered in edgy shards over the floor. She sighed. Another brush with the Nazis in dementia-land.
‘You ok?’ she called up.
Where were we now? Russia? Cold war?
‘Can’t beat a British Tommy!’
Crap! This could go on for hours. She galloped upstairs, aiming to get there before the next missile was launched, and halted herself at his bedroom door, grasping the wooden frame and surveying the scene. Her Dad, a retired RSM with the Royal Army Medical Corps, was busy drilling new officer recruits and bawling admonitions at them from a parade ground strewn with photo albums, military memorabilia, and an old teapot.
‘Call yourself an officer? I’ve had crotch sweat with more authority!’
‘Stand easy Sgt Major, time for a brew.’ She pressed the old buttons, gathered up the debris, and persuaded her dad into his chair. He might just stay there while she made some tea if she distracted him with his cap badge. She slipped the badge into his hand, brought his other hand over to enclose it, and gently encouraged him to begin the ritual rubbing and burnishing that eased his confusion.
As he stroked and caressed the badge, she nipped back downstairs, boiled the kettle and returned with a good, strong cup of ‘army tea’ – strong enough to stand a spoon up in, and laced with enough sugar to see Tate & Lyle through any number of recessions. She hovered his night sedation over the infusion, just an hour or so, pleeeease, but thought better of it. Four in the afternoon was a bit early by anyone’s standards. Maybe a small whiskey then. She poured a tipple into his favourite glass. Later, she’d pop his dinner into the oven and then settle him for the night.
Well, that was the plan anyway, although settling was often far from the usual routine. Dad often engaged in manoeuvres in the early hours, with a lot of stamping and bellowing. These occasionally escalated to full-blown re-enactment of some trench-based battle with assorted Nazis, commies, and ‘pinko liberal conshie bastards’. If she was lucky, this ended in triumphant victory, and her dad would subside into the sleep of the righteous. If not, he would become a leaden innocent, plummeting into nightmares of mud and blood and bodies and bombs.
‘C’mon Dad, tea.’
Oh no, not Eileen. Eileen had been a wartime sweetheart and when he tapped this particular vein, it was best to keep clear.
‘I’m not Eileen, Dad. No, stop that. Any more and I have to leave. Right, I’m going now, your tea’s on the table, I’ll bring your supper up in an hour or so.’ She reversed out of the room and closed the door, shoving a chair under the handle. It would thwart him for long enough to give her a bit of peace and by then, with any luck, he would have shifted back into Nazi bastard mode. Then she went off to chuck some food at the cats. Bless ‘em. Uncomprehending but judging nothing except the quality and regularity of their provisions, they stuck with the household, despite its descent into this mad twilight zone. They hoovered up the Supercat (lamb in gravy) and retired to a shelf of old TV magazines to become purring bookends. Well, at least somebody’s happy.
Stardust Silverwobbit returned to her keyboard and picked up where she left off in the shopping mall. Vaguely attracted by some shoes offering not only bling but free clacky heel sounds, she clicked on the sign, transferred the cash, and experimented with her new acquisition. A quick sashay down the boardwalk – flashy. Very nice, let’s go dancing.
‘Trenchtown Groove welcomes Stardust Silverwobbit! No nudity, no griefing, no excessive particles.’ She took time lining up a few favourite moves and adjusting her walk animation to get a bit of butt waggle going. Always best to rezz as fully as possible before ploughing through people you couldn’t see. A large grey bottom hovered over her head; two legs, some shoes and a wig appearing by degrees to accompany it. Bombay Hydroslate hit the deck, acquired clothes, colour and some spectacular dreads, then headed off towards the DJ rig. ‘Yo, Trenchtown! How ya doin’?’ Bombay streamed a classy line in Asian dub; Stardust clicked the dance floor, chose reggae chill, and watched herself swing into action. That looked vaguely possible, she thought, squinting at the screen and venturing a few shrugs and chin thrusts.
Sounds of sobbing. WTF/AFK. Up the stairs, dislodge the chair. What now?
‘What will I do? What will I do?’
Dad had remembered what happened to Eileen. Dribbling onto an old dance ticket, clasped before him like a crab presenting a prize, he was hearing in his head the news that Eileen was dead. How she wouldn’t make it to the dance, where he was waiting with flowers and a promise. Instead, her body lay like a crumpled doll under the wreckage of the military vehicle, turned over and over by the blast of the doodlebug. Dad went to war and locked his heart away. There would be no time to grieve in the stinking mud. ‘Load your gun soldier! Get off your arse or I’ll stick a bayonet up it lad!’ Now he was looking in his mind’s mirror, staring at the nothing that hung there, and railing at the unpicked threads of his dreams.
Oh, bless him. She pulled in a sigh and pushed it out again through white nostrils. He wasn’t alright but he could be left long enough for her to get his supper sorted. She headed downstairs again and flicked on the microwave to defrost his shepherd’s pie. Gravy, onions, salad, he won’t eat the salad, and a piece of fruit. Trenchtown would be filling up, she thought, hoping to get back before Bombay’s session was over. And maybe Sunrise Shan would be there. A slight frisson, Oh! Well, he was tall, 30-ish, attractive and a pretty smooth mover, but then wasn’t everyone? Heck, she wasn’t being that honest herself, was she? The fact that you could adjust pretty much every aspect of your appearance at any time, ‘A little more leg madam? Coming up. Rather less bum? No problem; T-W-E-A-K,’ rather diminished the value of such superficial appraisals but somehow, somehow…
PING. Decanting the contents of the microwave and a pan onto a melamine plate, and embellishing them with a dollop of brown sauce, she headed back upstairs, hoping the reminiscing had entered a more positive phase. It had. He was out cold, snoring for England. She pulled a five year old’s face at the meal, destined now to congeal on its plate – what can you do? – and galloped back downstairs. Rescue the salad, stick the rest in the microwave where the cats can’t get at it. Still time to grab some Bombay dub, if she was lucky.
Clicking back into Trenchtown, Stardust Silverwobbit found a conversation in progress between two of the regulars and a couple of newcomers. Astro-physics; well what else? Reviewing the chat IMs, she saw that it had been sparked by someone’s appraisal of the local black hole situation.
‘…..in the middle of our galaxy! That’s like, on the door step!’ Quick, everyone to Tesco’s for all the chips and toilet rolls they can deliver!
‘Some doorstep!’ Milburn Quan was remarking, ‘You wouldn’t want to be washing thatdown with a bucket of soapy water!’
Somebody else ventured the opinion that life was a statistical anomaly and we should think ourselves lucky to exist at all, and Bombay noted that it was actually just a box of chocolates, which pretty much set the level and led to a volley of increasingly daft one-liners.
‘Hey SD!’ A cheery IM on her private channel.
‘Hey Sun, WB! Long time no see, how’s things?’
‘PC crashed, crap graphics card and lousy drivers. Screwed up the OS.’
‘Fancy a dance?’
Those goose bumps again. ‘Okies; there’s one free over by the pool.’ The one by the pool was a rather hot salsa, and she realised she had conveniently bypassed a couple of less steamy opportunities. She reflected on this as she and Sun lined themselves up and clicked on the animation balls. For a moment, she was making sensuous and sinewy movements in splendid isolation, then Sunshine’s animation kicked in and Wow! His avatar took hold of hers, caressed it, folded its arms around (her) waist, held it (her) in a luscious Latin embrace, then slid her gently around him to rest on his back. Who are you, really, Mr Luvva Luvva? From her position on his back, arms locked around his, her avatar extended one perfect leg towards the midnight sky, tipping her over Sun’s head and landing her before him like the cape in the Paso Doble. He pulled her upright and, grasping her hips in both hands, leaned her over backwards, releasing one hand to place it behind her head. Their faces pressed close and, zooming in, she could almost feel his breath on her lips. Oh cripes!
‘Whrbuts ar yo, Sun?’ she clattered, keyboard skills taking a serious dive.
‘Los Angeles, you?’
I bet he’s a retired librarian from Leeds. Worse – a FEMALE retired librarian from Leeds! ‘Leeds.’ You wicked woman, that’s mean!
‘Hot dance, no chance of doing this in RL,’ he messaged.
‘Nor me! Your feet would be a right old mess by now, I can tell you.’
Their avatars reprised their sultry performance on the screen in front of her; and him, presumably. She fancied a cuppa but somehow it seemed discourteous to leave, even though her image would not be inconvenienced if she did, and Sun need not know. He’s probably sitting there, knitting a tea cosy, or finishing his airfix kit, or – oh my god! A parade of sleazy options, ads from some mental porn channel, sniggered at her from within and she froze: mouth like a gaping guppy, eyelids pegged to her eyebrows, and her body pitched forward at the screen like a stuffed hamster. Bloody hell!
Then he kissed her.
Omigod! ‘That’s cheating, I haven’t got one of those!’
An inventory notification popped up, ‘Sunshine Shan offers you kiss animation2.’ She accepted, stored it, and brought it up on-screen.
‘Here we go – cyber-snog coming up.’
It was duly delivered, heralded by a smack and a mwuaaah in stereo through the speakers, and Sun sent back a cascade of hearts that soared into the air, turned purple then twinkled away, like a flock of fairies, over the beach.
‘Show off!’ She made to retaliate with a burst of fairies of her own, but hit spiders instead and flooded the dance floor with hairy tarantulas. The back channel frothed with disapproval and she apologised profusely, sending out a bunch of cannabis leaves in hopeful compensation. All talk, the virtual drug scene, she reckoned, but plugging into it to grovel away a gaff might unruffle some feathers and attract a bit of kudos. Success; a fountain of Rasta flags burst in a great arc from a dancer off to the left, and a spliff the size of a plank appeared on someone else’s backside, to a tickertape of misspelled hootings. Now, where were they? Ah, Sun was standing still, head dropped. Away then. She considered logging out and then –
‘Back! Went looking for some stuff I thought you’d like. Sending now.’
Her inventory accepted his gifts and she inspected them. Dances, those hearts, some bits and pieces of accessorising trivia, and a landmark – his own apartment. Now that was something to think about! Not cheap, those things. And he was offering a teleport. Why did this suddenly feel like a date, and why was her body reacting with more excitement than the occasion demanded? Remember the librarian from Leeds? The FEMALE librarian? Yes? Well then, get a grip!
Whooosh. It was a lobby; quite nicely done out actually, with paintings on the walls.
‘Fancy a tour?’
‘Ok.’ She followed him into the lounge. More paintings, quality furnishings, opaque windows. Private then, no uninvited guests or voyeurs.
‘Naturally. What you got?’
‘Something you might like; hang on, just catching the stream – there.’ Delicious guitar, magical chords, slightly familiar.
‘Who’s this? It’s wonderful.’
‘Just someone I used to know.’
She moved on, inspected the floor space for dance animators, and found none.
‘No steamy salsa here then, more’s the pity. Any sofa action?’ Some sofa animations offered canoodling in addition to standard sit and lie options. That might be entertaining – if a bit risky, don’t you think?
‘No animations at all? Not much of a date!’ A giggle burbled up to the surface and let itself out in an ungracious snort. Good thing they weren’t on voice. ‘You really know how to show a girl a good time!’
‘There’s one through here though…’ He led her to the bedroom. ‘Actually there’s a choice of animations. Regular, not so regular.’
‘Really? What sort?’ Oh God!
‘Well, there’s not much you can’t get really, you just have to make sure you know what you’re activating, especially in public!’
‘I lost all my clothes in a shopping mall yesterday. Embarrassing!’
‘Care to do that again?’
Did she? The incident in the mall had been pretty excruciating and she’d rapidly grabbed a ghastly frock in desperation. Go on, it’s not real. ‘Ok, you first, let’s see what’s on offer!’ (sounds of clicking), ‘Good grief, you have – equipment!’
‘I bet you say that to all the boys!’
Stardust Silverwobbit took a very deep breath, how could this hurt? Cybersex with a stranger who isn’t a stranger? He felt familiar, comfortable. What the hell. She accessed her inventory, keyed in WORN and deleted all the clothing items. You are a MAD woman! This left her momentarily with a pair of socks she’d forgotten about. Green, oh dear – there went her credibility! She dispensed with them quickly and stood, naked, and feeling, well –surprisingly horny, actually! Well then, let battle commence.
The animators located within the bed in Sun’s apartment in the sky were pink and blue, and offered a range of options, some of them quite prosaic and matronly, some verging on the S&M, and some frankly incomprehensible. What on earth was …?
‘Cop out!’ Jeez! So what was the etiquette here? Go for the most demure and come across as a prude, or pick that Number 12, that – what was that, exactly? She chose Number 6, innocuously titled ‘Love in the afternoon’, for its plausible deniability, and watched with rising horror (excitement?) as some of Sun’s pixels began disappearing among some of Stardust’s and re-emerging in rhythmic synchronicity. Pity the poor bloke hits on me after this! How long did these animations run? Did they loop? What if it was still running when she went somewhere else? A volley of cyber-farts might be handy, right about now!
‘Erm, any idea of the protocol around moving to the ‘Darling you were wonderful’ phase?’ Sun was evidently not an expert either.
‘Nope. First time. SL virgin you might say. Maybe a lit ciggy automatically appears after, what – twenty four hours?’ She activated a full blown LMFAO gesture, which set her avatar off convulsing and twitching in a spasticity of tangled script. She took the opportunity to make a dash for the kettle and a normalising brew. Blimey, what was thatall about?
In front of his own screen, Sunshine Shan fidgeted his fingers and pondered on how all this unreality, virtual reality, whatever the heck it was, blew to hell and back the crap that passed for his real world. Two hours a month at the mutual moan-in with other desolate souls hardly qualified as a social life, not with their dead fish eyes and bleak commiserations. Neither did the frequent encounters with the police, the ambulance crews; however matey they were as they hauled his brother back to the hospital.
Andrew breathed out a long, long sigh and turned back to Stardust, his virtual paramour. The action had ceased. Or hers had anyway and he was left performing alone while her avatar stood, head down, on the bed beside him.
‘AFK,’ read the IM chat, ‘Dog needs a pee.’
How nice to have such a simple concern. He wondered fleetingly where Stardust was; Leeds, wasn’t it? Probably not – he certainly wasn’t in LA, anyway. It occurred to him suddenly that she might not even be female. What if…? No! It didn’t bear thinking about! He focused on the image. Definitely female, check out the girlie outfit. But wasn’t there something about half the women in virtual worlds actually being men? Oh, lord! He sat and gawped at the screen, his gathering arousal suffering a resigned subsidence.
Stardust Silverwobbit was wondering if it was normal to feel lustily breathless over a man who wasn’t much more than a cartoon. She sucked her stomach in, hoisted up her bra straps, and stuck her bottom out at the TV. Bloody good fun, though! Anyway, back to reality. She nipped upstairs to check on her dad, who was dozing in his chair with a photo of eighteen year old Eileen clasped to his chest, and calling her name in wet whispers. Eileen, not Joan. So much for fifty years wed, bastard Alzheimer’s. Now he was forever stuck with a fantasy, a relationship that never quite happened. Totally unreal. She scrubbed some biscuit crumbs off the bedside table with her forearm, and fussed over the little doily her mother had sewn. But then, what about her own escape hatch? Her rabbit hole to wonderland? Which was less bonkers, living in the dream world of a long-gone real-life relationship, or rumpy pumpy with a bunch of pixels? At least Dad knew who Eileen was, or had been. Sunshine, on the other hand, while really there (where?) could be anyone at all.
She clattered back downstairs, ‘Sorry for the doggus interruptus!’ she messaged, ‘Hope it didn’t put your back out!’
‘NP. Had to put a dog of my own out.’ True, in a manner of speaking, albeit earlier in the day when another bit of his shit-for-a-social-life had put in an appearance. Nothing like an axe-wielding bloke, howling about demons in the door knocker, to attract the local constabulary. Was this how people got started banging their heads on the wall? He angled his chair back onto two legs to see if he could reach, and stretched out his arms like a crucifix so that the tiny white lines on his left wrist slid into view as his sleeves rode upwards. Not so mental-healthy yourself, are you bro’? At least there was Second Life, with all its nonsense. Music, daft chat, all the neon wigs you could wear. And getting rather spectacularly laid too, it seemed. He glanced back at the screen, there was an IM from Stardust.
‘Had to go Sun. Bedtime here in UK-ville. Thanks for the er…’
‘Yeah, you too,’ he messaged back. His faded erection was making a renewed bid for attention. Easy Tiger, he told it, show’s over for tonight. He’d better log off, get some shut-eye, Craig might be back with an arseful of meds and a new care plan tomorrow.
In Leeds that isn’t Leeds, Stardust Silverwobbit shuts down her computer, looks in on her dad, now stretched out on his bed, and covers him over with the duvet. Shoes off, teeth out. That’ll do. Turning in herself, she reflects on the evening’s encounter. There were unsettling tinglings where tinglings had not been evident for some time. Quite nice actually – and you didn’t have to run the gauntlet of sleazy late night taxis with a kebab and an unsavoury co-occupant either! She clicks off her bedroom light.
In LA that isn’t LA, looking at the dark screen, now lifeless and offering nothing but a finger print smeared reflection of himself, Andrew also decides to hit the sack. The episode with Stardust is still rumbling through his mind. And body, he observes with some consternation. One day there would be real women again; Baggy-eyed Alison from the Monday Moan-In, maybe? He skims a mental image, disturbingly set alongside one of Stardust Silverwobbit in the altogether. Nah. He punches the light switch.
(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2012.