A bit of a different approach this week. Thought I’d try my hand at a little future fiction. A short story. It’s a bit ‘on the nose’ but I think you’ll get the idea.
This story was inspired by those questions we all get from our kids about old technology: “What’s a record?”, “Why is the save button that funny square?” etc. It got me thinking: what abandoned technology might kids be curious about in the near future?
The pop of the cork, then the wail of the smoke alarm. The two sounds followed one another so closely, I felt it must be cause and effect. It took me a few seconds to realise that my wine hadn’t triggered the alarm. Nor was dinner burning. I hadn’t got past chopping vegetables.
Instead, the noise was coming from upstairs. That meant the kids.
I dropped the bottle on the surface, and started to turn. Then instinctively turned back when I saw it wobbling in the corner of my eye. Having saved the wine, I raced up the stairs seeking the source of the smoke.
What I found was just wisps. Barely visible. And my eldest daughter, standing on the landing, hands clamped over her ears, looking shocked and sheepish. Her younger sister hadn’t even opened her door.
Satisfied we weren’t in imminent danger, I turned my attention to the alarm. “Move out of the way” I shouted over the noise. I grabbed a child-sized chair from the eldest’s bedroom, giving me just enough extra height to reach the reset button.
The silence brought relief. The adrenaline quickly started to subside. As quiet returned, the 8-year-old removed her hands from her ears.
“Do you know where the smoke came from?” I asked. She instantly dissolved into tears. “I’m sorry!” she pleaded.
I pulled her into a hug and settled her. “It’s OK. I just need to know what happened. You’re not in trouble.” She continued to sob, albeit less energetically.
“Did one of your farts set your room on fire?”
“DAAAD!!” she shouted. But she couldn’t help herself. She laughed. And the tears stopped.
She wiped her face on her sleeve. “Come and see.” she said.
I followed her into her room.
There, on the floor, was a log. More of a small branch really. Two feet long and about the same diameter as her arm, but twisted and gnarled. It was old, bark-less and so dry it was almost white. She had brought it back from a walk a few weeks earlier and insisted on keeping it, lugging it up the stairs and nearly taking a number of pictures down along the way.
One of the hollows in the log was dark and sooty. Next to it lay a straight stick, around which was wrapped the string of a plastic kids bow. The sort that fires darts with large suckers on the end. The straight stick was also blackened at one end.
I was stunned. I felt anger rising. But I was also curious. And impressed. I knew what she had been doing. I had learned about this trick on a survivalist YouTube channel as a kid. The bow allows you to spin the stick to create friction on the larger piece, starting a fire. I had tried this trick many times and barely got the stick warm before I gave up, arm aching. Without the interruption of the alarm, she would have succeeded where I failed.
“Were you trying to start a fire?”
“I just wanted to see what it looked like!”
This stunned me again. I was speechless as I tried to turn back through eight years of memories. Surely she had seen fire?
Slowly I ticked off the many ways she might have experienced it.
No gas hob. That had gone in the early thirties when we refurbished the kitchen. All domestic gas had been phased out a few years earlier and it didn’t make much sense to cling to the dead technology.
We had a wood burner in the living room. But those had been all but outlawed in the twenties. Actually, the laws banning them didn’t come in until the thirties but you risked social censure from the local clean air campaigners if they saw smoke rising from your rooftop. And the stats weren’t good on what they did to people inside the house either. So the only light in ours now came from a big string of fairy lights stuffed inside the cast iron casing.
But she must have seen fire somewhere, surely?
Bonfires? Maybe not. Bonfire night had increasingly been ‘fireworks night’ until those were banned after a series of accidents, including the high profile injuries to a popular influencer. With drone displays, laser shows and holograms taking over from the fireworks as the main attraction, people just stopped building bonfires either at home or for big displays. The risk – and the insurance – just wasn’t worth it. I’m sure we went and saw a real bonfire when she was young. But maybe she was only two? She wouldn’t remember now.
Candles then. Sure she must have seen birthday candles? But no, I realised. We’d had the same set of LED ones for probably ten years now with their archaic little USB charger.
No-one smoked actual cigarettes any more. At least, no-one we knew. And the clean air rules meant no-one burned garden waste. Not here in the city.
So no. At eight years old, our daughter had probably never seen a flame. Not that she could recall.
I snapped out of my reverie.
“Do you still want to see fire?”
“Won’t the alarm go off again?”
“Not in here!! Please tell me you will never, ever try to start a fire in here again. There’s a reason we have alarms for that. It’s incredibly dangerous.”
She looks like she will cry again.
“But I think you should see fire. Come outside?”
“But it’s bedtime!”
“That didn’t stop you trying to burn the house down.”
At this point the younger child pokes her head around the door. A smoke alarm couldn’t pull her out of her cosy bed, but the promise of being up after bed time is clearly too good to miss.
The three of us head downstairs and put on shoes and coats. I head down into the cellar and find my father’s old blowtorch – still miraculously with a little propane in the tank. I’m not messing around with rubbing sticks together.
We head out to the back yard and I place the gnarled log on an old paving slab. The girls squeal and recoil as the blowtorch ignites. As they look on, I point the torch at the log. Under this assault it bursts rapidly into flames.
The three of us stand there, transfixed and silent, as it is consumed.