S.P. Russell: a story



Future Excuses

Towards the end of his life Ernst K Hoffmann, the finest theoretical physicist of his generation, could not stand the presence of children. He found himself irritated by their voices and exhausted by their antics. But he hadn't always felt this way. Once, he had delighted in their presence. He had dressed up as Santa Claus for his local church. He had considered himself a genial, warm-hearted man, the kind of man who believed that there was no better cure for one's worldly cares than to sit, cross-legged, helping a toddler with their building blocks. The older he grew, however, the more Hoffmann avoided them. Where once he thought their questions charming, he now found them to be impertinent and absurd. No, he told them, he was not "the guy who had pressed the button". Yes, he did know the story of Prometheus and the eagle. No, he did not see the relevance to his "own situation". Soon, Hoffmann started to decline social invitations unless absolutely sure no children would be in attendance. He absented himself from birthdays, christenings, school plays and graduation ceremonies. He gave up his position at Yale, and moved to a retirement village in Florida. He kept his curtains drawn, and risked going outside only when necessary. If he saw a child, he crossed the road, and hid himself in some nearby foliage. He could not bear to look at them, and least of all the scorching whites of their eyes.

So it went with the rest of Hoffmann's team. Ed Purley, discoverer of the process by which plutonium could be isolated and then concentrated, wrote letters to The New York Times describing America's post-war generation as "the most insolent to have walked upon this green earth". In one letter, Purley called for a raise in the voting age to thirty years old. In another, he suggested the age of conscription be lowered. Dorothy Marshall, senior engineer and architect of the nuclear shell model, would walk five miles out of her way to avoid the high school near her home. Vladimir Vassilev, heavy element expert and double agent, upped sticks to Siberia the moment his grandson began to talk. Bob Farrell, Princeton Professor of Physics, delivered his lectures via a proxy, and refused to make himself available for follow-up questions. And, every Friday at noon until the day she died, Marge Becker, associate project director and responsible for the first self-sustaining chain reaction, insisted her husband Harry go down to the front gate to give the delivery boy his wages while she sat in the lounge with a stomach full of ice.

Whenever I read these stories, I feel an enormous wave of sadness wash over me. How lonely, I think, to spend your autumn years shuttered away inside some sterile condominium, peering through the blinds, scared to go out into the world, scared to join in with the vital urgency of life. How pathetic. I don't know about you, but I plan on remaining an active, visible presence in my society. On maintaining a dynamic relationship with the younger generation – a relationship of lively exchange and mutual respect. And I plan on looking my grandchildren in the eyes. No wavering, no shuffling of feet. Shoulders back, head high, chin forward. Which means that I need to get going. Because if I've learnt one thing from the sad fate of Ernst K Hoffmann, it's the importance of early preparation; of figuring out your excuses, and rehearsing them till they stick. Because it's not what we did that will matter, it's how we describe it. When the time comes, I won't be caught with my tongue in knots and my hands in my pockets. When the time comes, I'll be ready.

To start with, I'll keep them distracted. That's what Sun Tzu recommends for this kind of situation: "...the whole secret", he says, "lies in confusing the enemy, in order that they cannot fathom our real intent". So buckle up, kids: it's grandpa time! I'll toss them from side to side, hoist them onto my shoulders, drop them onto my knees. I'll make them so dizzy they'll see double, and turn every visit into an eye-popping, heart-racing thrill. I'll build forts out of bed sheets, tell them the floor is made of lava and hop from one end of the kitchen to the other. I'll slide headfirst down the stairs on inflatable mattresses, wage full-scale pillow wars, vault over the sofa and land like an Olympian. I'll keep on moving, moving so fast that they won't have a hope of pinning me down. And I'll talk fast, too. I'll give them a thousand different nicknames, and never the same one twice. I'll call them Kiddo, Little Mister, Lady Inquisitor. I'll call them Thumbscrews. When they're tired of physical exertion, I'll have all the latest video games waiting and the full set of streaming services on standby. Every month, I'll watch the subscriptions come out of my account and, though who knows what my pension will be worth by then, I won't mind in the slightest. It won't be too long before we're up again, up again and moving. I'll rush them into my arms, and wheel them around the lounge, I'll play the spry old devil with a head full of hair and a spring in my step. Let’s dance, I'll sing. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues…

No telling how long I'll be able to keep that carry-on going. Until the very end, if I'm lucky. Cartwheeling around till the day I drop. A good man, they'll say. As loving and gentle a grandfather as you could wish for. But if my powers of distraction should falter? If one day they want more from me than to be tossed high into the air? Then I will prepare for the next stage. For denial, straight-up and unblinking.


How was I meant to know, I'll chuckle. An old dope like me? Old cabbage head?


They will gather at my feet, wide-eyed and darling.


Really, grandpa?


Really, kiddos.


Gone will be my jaunty step and irrepressible bounce. I'll comb grey dye through my hair and affect the sweetest, most trembling little cough. I'll wrap up beneath a woollen shawl, frail as a newborn, and peer out at the world beneath lids red-rimmed and sore.


I tried my best, sweethearts.


Really, grandpa?


Really, I'll whisper.


Well, one of the older ones might say, that's not enough. We want specifics.

Specifics? I'll ask gently.


You heard us! he'll bark. Specifics! he'll hiss. Details! Hard evidence of your supposed commitment!


Well, I do seem to recall a protest on a bridge this one time –


Which bridge?


Well, it's so long ago I can hardly be expected to –


Try.

The red one, I think. Westminster.

Westminster was painted green.

Ah.

I can picture him now. Lean, vulpine. Hard eyes, thrusting jaw. Same as the rest of them. Not an ounce of my roly-poly charm. When did they become so sinewy and so ravenous-looking? But it will hardly be a surprise, this line of interrogation, and I have already started to gather the necessary evidence. Petitions signed, donations made, emails to my local MP. A photo, slightly out of focus, of a man with a passing resemblance to myself, standing outside Parliament, holding up a sign that reads "TIME IS RUNNING OUT". Corroborating evidence, organised by date and kept safe in a folder on my desktop so that, when the moment comes, I can pull it up triumphantly on-screen. There, I'll say. There are your damned specifics.

And if that's not enough? If they continue to badger and press? Oh sweethearts, I really wish you hadn't. You've backed your grandfather into a corner, and now he needs to respond.

So I will rage, and I will roar. I'll meet suspicious looks and snarky comments with fear and aggression. I will put on the most terrifying display those little pups will have ever seen.


Jesus! I'll shout. Give it a bloody rest, will you?

I will accuse them of disrespect and insolence. I'll read out newspaper columns on the virtues of "obedience" and "understanding".

Silence! I'll scream. That's what I want: total, uninterrupted silence. I will shush and I will prowl. I'll create an atmosphere so toxic that they'll have to hold their breath to survive. Step out of line, and I will snap. Come at me with facts, and I will slap them back at you. No, I was not aware of those particular long-term trends. Yes, I do recall reading about the wildfires. No, I do not believe it would have helped. I will remain steadfast and unbroken, and, when some of the younger, more gentle-hearted ones realise they have gone too far and apologise for putting an old man under such strain, I will tell them that, really, there is no need to say sorry. Because I will be the adult in the situation. The one in control of his emotions, the one who will maintain his composure. I will buy a baseball bat and every night, before I go to sleep, I will take it out from beneath my bed to practise. Hey batter batter, I'll whisper in the dark. Swing batter batter.


And if the day comes when my strategies and my schemes finally fail, when my grandchildren gather beneath bleached skies and move through the streets like shadows, to beat down my door and tear me from my bed?


Then I'll run.



S. P. Russell lives in Hertfordshire with his family, and works in London as a copywriter. In his free time, he works on short fiction and his first novel.