The sun was high in the sky and the birds were cheeping happily in the trees lining Lavender Boulevard. It was one of those streets in the outer reaches of London that thought it was deep in the country, purely by having the pollution resistant London plane trees spaced out at 35 yard intervals along the pavement. It was high summer so the trees were in full leaf – too early to think of dropping to create the annual slippery, sticky, wet mess that everyone hated. Except, of course, the younger school children who revelled in kicking around the dry leaves before the inevitable rain.
Charlotte was happy. She was pootling along at 25 mph in her new Ford. Julian, her nephew, had spent all weekend showing how to cope with the new fangled equipment that was built-in as standard. She had never met most of the gadgets before as her trusty Hillman had lasted twenty three years before expiry. It hadn’t even had power steering so Charlotte had remarkable upper body strength for a lady of her advancing years. One of the things that Julian had told her about and then demonstrated was the automatic navigation, driving and parking system. She thought she would try it out on her own this morning, so she parked the car, manually. She looked up the post code of the Post Office on the car’s built-in computer – yes, she was computer literate – but in the same way that a giraffe is good at riding a bike. She carefully entered the resulting code into the touch screen, told it to go to that area, find a parking space and …er, park.
Charlie sat back in her seat and tried to relax while her car digested the post code information, sorted through 11,325 possible routes, in 23.5 milliseconds, to get there and set off on what seemed the best one. She didn’t believe that the route they were following was the best one but gritted her teeth and kept her straying fingers from touching the controls. In spite of her determination to give this technology free rein, she had to shut her eyes, put her fingers in her ears and quietly sing, ‘la, la – la la ‘ to herself to shut out the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells that were briefly projected through the side windows.
The car slowed and came to a gentle halt, ‘We have reached your destination. Shall I park us now?’ said the car in a voice that sounded like a patronising doctor using the royal ‘we’. Charlotte tapped the ‘accept’ button on the touch screen. The car reversed slowly into a space that she would have found impossible to negotiate. She thought she detected a note of pride in the car’s voice as it grandly announced, ‘I have now parked us, how long a stay would you like me to pay for?’ She tapped the ‘2 hour’ button. The car quickly accessed the London parking control centre via the Internet, negotiated a frequent user discount and paid using the debit card data stored in it’s… somewhere, printed out a two hour parking permit and commanded Charlie to place it where is would be visible from outside the car. The doors unlocked and the car said, ‘ you are now free to disembark the vehicle.’
It took Charlotte a few seconds to realise that it meant she could now leave the car. She got out, looked around and saw that she was just outside the Post Office with the car neatly tucked in between two other cars, close to the kerb with only a few inches, front and back, free to the next cars in the busy street. She was impressed although she tried not to be and couldn’t resist saying, ‘thank you’ to the car as she opened the door and stepped out. The car, of course, replied , ‘you’re welcome.’ The software had been written in American. She closed the door and the locks snapped shut.
Her chores in the Post Office took only a few minutes so she spent some time wandering along the High Street, looking at all the ‘bargains’ in the windows. She knew they were bargains because most of them said so, in addition to the deep discounts of up to 85%. ‘If they could afford to sell something at an 85% discount it must mean that there was at least an 85% margin on the original item,’ she calculated. Charlotte resolved to never pay the full asking price for anything again. She would buy her Christmas cards in January, for example when they were discounted by a huge amount – better even the December box offers of,’ buy one and get a second one at the same price.’
Her feet were getting a little sore so she decided it was time to have a sit down and enjoy a nice cup of coffee. A Sunbucks soon appeared in the line of shops so she wandered in to try it and looked up at the coffee menu. Why was coffee on a menu, was’t a coffee a coffee any longer.
‘Name?’ asked the barrister behind the counter in a Latvian accent, scratching his wig.
‘Err… Charlie’, said Charlotte trying to sound hip and ‘down there’, like a gangsta. It didn’t work as the barrista said, ‘thank you madam, what recipe would you like, as he scrawled ‘Charlie’ on the side of a paper cup.
‘Milk, water and coffee please,’ she said, a little flustered by all the decisions she had to make. The Latvian flipped his ponytail in annoyance and indicated the ‘menu’ on the wall above his head. She gave in and asked for a petite, ginger, skinny, decaff, latte, macchiato with an extra shot. The Latvian gangster repeated it back to her in an incomprehensible gabble and asked for £5.73. Charlie gasped,
‘I can get fish and chips for less than that.’
‘Not in here, you can’t,’ laughed her new found friend, thrusting out a hand to snatch the shiny new £10 note from her fingers. He apologised that the contactless pay system wasn’t working yet as it had only just been installed. She had no idea what he was talking about.
He showed no signs of getting her coffee so she asked him where it was – perhaps G4S were coming to escort such a valuable item to her table? No, she had to go down to the end of the counter and humbly stand in line for her masterpiece to be prepared to her ‘recipe.’ A young girl from the Philippines called out ‘Charlie’ twice before she realised it was for her. She was handed a paper bucket of coffee with firm instructions to, ‘enjoy.’
After she collected sugar and a wooden stirring stick, not even a spoon after paying that price, she sat at a window table to do some serious people watching while she tried to enjoy her coffee as instructed. It was not very nice, not at all like the Nescafe Gold Blend she was used to. She dreamed back to the Italian coffee bars of her youth where you could sit for hours sipping a ‘phroffy coffee’ in a tall glass tumbler, held in a EPNS holder, listening to the juke box in the corner while the Gaggia coffee machine hissed and gurgled omnipotently on the counter.
There was a beep from her smart phone. Looking at the screen she realised that it was a text from her car to say that there was only 15 minuted remaining on her parking permit. She slurped the rest of the foul – tasting sludge from her cup and then walked quickly back to the car. As she neared the car, the locks automatically opened and she was able to open the door. After she was in, comfortable and ready to go, she put her home post code in the touch screen and pressed ‘go’. The car didn’t move. She pressed the ‘help’ button, whereupon the voice told here that there was not enough room for the car to manoeuvre out into the road – she was trapped. Charlie got out of the car again to investigate. There was a white van parked behind her, only about three inches between the two bumpers.
‘How inconsiderate,’ she thought. ‘All this clever technology and it all gets beaten by a white van man.’ She walked to the front of the van and saw that the driver had his feet up on the dashboard, a sausage roll in his hand and was reading the guardian – well page 3 anyway. Charlie knocked on the window and mimed for him to roll it down.
‘Could you move back a bit and give me room to get out please?’
‘No, it’s my lunch hour,’ said the young man,’I’ll be finished in about ten minutes and then I’ve got to go to a urgent callout so I’ll be moving off then anyway.’
‘OK,’ said Charlie politely, signalling that he could now wind his window up. She walked toward the back of the van and found a gap of about six feet to the next car that was a new blue Ford. A plan was coming together in her head as she walked back and got into her own car.
‘Hello car,’ she said
‘’My name is Horatio,’ said the car
‘Sorry, Horatio, I wonder if you could help me with a problem?’
‘I’ll try, of course.
‘Can you talk to another new Ford in this area?’
‘Yes, I am in contact with all new Fords within ten miles.’
‘Could you please ask the nice blue car behind the white van if he could move forward and get as close as possible to the back of the white van.’
‘Yes, but that will mean that the white van won’t be able to…oh I see, consider it done.
‘Thank you, Horatio, you can go to sleep now while I go to those old fashioned tea rooms across the road and try to get a decent, cheap cup of coffee. I’ll watch the fun from the window.’
© Richard Kefford Eorðdraca
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