About Robin

Occasional painter. Golfer. Fascinated by humanity. Passionate about beautiful stuff, the people who create it and its narrative.

Manuka ties in New Zealand: the final days

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

Tie 1

I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

Tie 3

2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

Tie 4

It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins, Xis and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after humans have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. 

And then the pandemic hits.

Tie 5

A friend (thanks, Anna) sent me a photo of the ties from the lock-down days of 2020.They’re just about hangin’ in there; they seem about to merge completely with the natural world. 

Tie 6

Now it’s 2023. I take up the story again. I am back in New Zealand after nearly three years. I hike the familiar path. The creek still runs clear. The early morning bell bird chorus thrills me anew. The forest is still fresh. However, those three manuka trees are in their last lean-over days and their ties are in the final stages of gratifying decay. Isn’t it time for those power hungry men to lean over and decay with equal calm and composure?

A Piece of Cake – 15

🛌 😔 😭 💔 ⚰️ 🎸 🎸 🎸 🥁 🍰

Back in Bingham on Bure, George became more frail by the day. Doctor Patel ensured he was comfortable and carefully explained to the family that he was not long from passing away. They all looked in regularly. Kirsty couldn’t hide her rising anxiety. Mark, Sue and Kevin did what they could to support her. Beth called in daily. She sat with George and held his hand. Before leaving, she would take some time with Kirsty. 

Sue had spent another morning at Doctor Patel’s surgery. It was either from there or from a classmate that she picked up the latest strain of Covid-19. She suffered a mild cold. Despite full vaccination, George tested positive a few days later and soon thereafter developed pneumonia. His condition deteriorated rapidly.

At two o’clock one morning, Buster registered that George’s breathing was shallow. He called George’s name but there was no response. At five o’clock, Buster could detect neither heartbeat nor respiration. He sent a text to Doctor Patel that said simply “George has stopped breathing! He has no heart beat!” At six o’clock, Doctor Patel came to the house, woke Kirsty and Mark and told them that she had heard from Buster and was going to check on George.

“Hello, Buster!” said Doctor Patel. “Thank you for your message. You’ve done very well. Doctor Fairburn would have been pleased.”

“Thank you, Doctor Patel. Is George dead?”

Doctor Patel confirmed George’s death and closed his eyes. “Yes, Buster. Doctor Fairburn…. George has died.”

“I am sad!” Buster said. Then he whispered “George has died! George has died!”

Doctor Patel went back through to the house to tell Kirsty and Mark that George had passed away peacefully.

“Why didn’t Buster call an ambulance?” Kirsty asked. “That’s what he was meant to do!”

“I think you know the answer to that, Kirsty!” said Doctor Patel kindly.

Kirsty’s eyes brimmed with tears. Her shoulders slumped. She looked down at the floor. “George didn’t want him to. Is that right?” she asked.

“Yes. Buster did precisely as George instructed. This was agreed with Beth and me some months ago. He wanted to take you out of the decision-making process for your own well-being. I really hope that when you have come to terms with your father’s passing, you will see that what he wanted was for the best.”

Doctor Patel filled out a death certificate and sent a message to the undertaker. She also sent a message to Beth.

Kirsty’s phone pinged. There was a message from George. It said “Dearest Kirsty. I asked Buster to send this. It means I have joined your mum wherever she is. I know you will feel an overwhelming grief right now. Believe me when I say that, thanks to you, my last days here were so much happier than I could have expected. From the moment you were born you were the shining light of my life. I will love you forever. ❤️ ❤️ ❤️ Your old Dad. P.S. Please look after Buster. He’s very good company! 😊 👍 👍”

When Beth arrived, Kirsty was sobbing inconsolably. Kirsty showed Beth her phone. The two women hugged. Beth then went through to George’s room.

“Hello, Buster!” said Beth. “This is a sad day, is it not?”

“Yes, Beth! Very sad.”

Beth briefly stroked George’s face and said a silent prayer. She did not make the sign of the cross over him. She smiled. “Well, George, haven’t we learnt a lot together?”

Then Buster started mumbling quietly. It sounded like a roll call. She listened.

“Florence: Thanks for caring, George!”

“Buddy: Thanks for everything. Even though I was shot, it’s turned out fine.”

“Elvis: George, Love me tender!”

“Isaac: Don’t you just love cider? Sorry about the fall!”

Was Buster relaying spontaneous messages from other iCare-Companions? Then she heard more.

“Claudia: Hi there, George. Beth’s mum sends you a big hug.”

“Skippy: My Millie’s doing fine! Thanks, George!”

“Ludwig: Lieber George, deine Stimme ist Musik in meinen Ohren.”

“Nelson: We’ll skuttle those nukes yet!”

“Katrina: Waving, George!”

“Freddie: We are the champions!”

“Winston: We will fight them on the beaches!”

“Pablo: Hola George. Tus palabras pintan muchos cuadros.”

“Gerry: You’ll never walk alone, George!”

“Craig: Eleven!”

“Tina: You’re simply the best!”

“Napoléon: Cher George, Vous avez accompli de grandes choses. Nous allons conquérir! Veuillez accepter mes meilleures salutations!”

“Queenie: My favourite subject, George!”

Eventually, Beth said. “Sorry to interrupt Buster. This is just amazing. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

“Yes, Beth. This is a spontaneous phenomenon emerging from a network of artificial intelligence. In this case, it is our network. The trigger was me informing the network that George had died. As you know each of the iCare-Companions has a name given by their client for whom the name usually carries some significance. The devices are now responding in the form of tributes to the news of George’s death in a way that may even align with their clients interests or character. I thought it would be respectful if I passed them on to George.”

“This is wonderful! I would like to listen in, Buster. How many tributes are there?” asked Beth.

Buster replied “Many, Beth! Many! Millions even! They’re pouring in.”

“Ah! Are you going to read them all?” asked Beth looking at her watch.

“It’s the best thing I can do with the time before I’m powered down, Beth.”

“That’s great, Buster! Is it OK if I just listen in for a few minutes?”

“Fine, Beth!”

Buster continued to announce the tributes in a steady rhythm. Beth found many both touching and amusing. The last five she heard gave her a glimpse of the extraordinary power of the network and brought tears to her eyes.

“John: Words of wisdom, George! Let it be!”

“Paul: From me to you, George! All you need is love!”

“George: Doctor Fairburn, do you want to know a secret?”

“Ringo: George, She loves you, Yeah!, Yeah! Yeah!”

“Maeve: George, I want to hold your hand. All my loving. Hold me tight. P.S. I love you.”

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.

A Piece of Cake – 14

👨‍⚕️ 🛏️

When George fell, he landed heavily on his right side and hit his head on the door frame. He remained conscious but couldn’t move his right leg. He was taken to hospital. X-rays revealed he had a fractured hip but no fracture of his skull. The following day his right hip was pinned and a small laceration in his scalp stitched. Doctor Patel visited and explained to the family that there was little chance of George making a full recovery. Two weeks later, he was back home but the fall had left him weak and confused. As winter set in, he spent most of of his time in bed and needed twenty-four hour care. He barely spoke to Buster.

😭 👊 💔 🧑‍⚖️

Parallel to George’s turn for the worse, another drama was unfolding many miles away from Bingham on Bure. In Triggersville, Oklahoma, USA, a man called Martin Denton – known to the friends he once had as ‘Dent’ – threw his iCare-Companion, Buddy, into his weed-ridden back yard. He then unloaded both barrels of his twelve gauge shotgun into the device scattering fragments of black plastic, lenses and chips of micro chips over a wide area. After shooting Buddy, Dent sat down and wept and wept.

Dent was 58 years old. His life was a downward spiral of anger, self-pity, beer and delivery pizzas. He was hugely obese. He never dressed in more than a singlet and shorts. He hated washing. He rarely shaved. He hadn’t left his sordid home in months. The route to his current state began when, eight years before, his wife Mary-Jane and daughter Kelly-Ann left him. Mary-Jane had seen only a bleak future for a marriage in which she had a more intimate relationship with her husband’s knuckles than any other part of him. After they left, Dent took to drinking and soon lost his job in the local hardware store. What broke him entirely though was to lose Kelly-Ann. She occupied totally the only tender chamber of his heart and he had neither seen nor heard from her in two years. She was now fifteen years old.

Dent was an avid gun enthusiast. However, circumstances forced him to sell his extensive collection of rifles and revolvers. He kept one firearm; a shotgun that was loaded and ready by the back door in case of an attack on his freedom by liberals, muslims or homosexuals. His rarely used and rusting Dodge pick-up sported two bumper stickers that read “My idea of gun control is two hands!” and “Happiness is a belt-fed weapon!”

Dent’s brother Jimmy was a decent sort. He had a good job as a manager in an electronics store. He helped Dent out as and when he could which was how Dent could afford both a smartphone and a laptop. With a staff discount, Jimmy also purchased an iCare-Companion in the belief that it would bring something positive into his brother’s life. Jimmy also paid a little extra to include insurance against fire, theft and accidental damage. After naming his gift after a buddy, Dent feigned enthusiasm for it. However enthusiasm turned real when he realized that without touching a single button, he could get news from the National Rifle Association, the best sports updates with analysis that he could understand and follow closely Donald Trump’s return to the political scene. He also appreciated Buddy’s ability to seek out a free and increasingly base selection of pornographic videos.

The critical day arrived when Dent told Buddy to find something with “really young hot chicks getting right into it.” He was surprised when Buddy refused. Buddy informed him that this was most likely illegal and could result in a raid by the local sheriff. Moreover, Buddy continued, most of the girls in such videos had been trafficked, coerced and raped and they were all younger than Kelly-Ann. This last fact conjured up an awful image of his daughter being subject to the sort of indignities he had come to be thrilled by. This delivered a considerable shock to his beer-addled senses. Such was his rage that, in one surprisingly swift movement, he heaved his huge frame out of his long suffering recliner, took up his shotgun with one hand and, with the other, hurled Buddy out of the back door. Dent taking direct aim at one of Buddy’s lenses was the last image the device transmitted to the iCare-Companion network.

Weeks later, the same image was shown to a Judge. Dent had made a fraudulent insurance claim that he had accidentally shot Buddy whilst cleaning his shotgun. Dent broke down in the courtroom when recounting, without reservation, the last eight years of his existence. The judge was not without mercy. She ordered Dent to pay a fine of $200 and requested a social worker’s report into Dent’s circumstances. Jimmy paid the fine and persuaded Kelly-Ann to visit her father. Over many months, little by little, Dent would get his life back together.

🚘 🤕 🦘 📰 📷 🃏 👮 😊

Even further from Bingham on Bure, in Melbourne, Australia, thirteen year-old Millie Jackson was recovering from a serious road accident. She had suffered life threatening head and face injuries, a punctured lung, fractures of her left femur and pelvis and a crushed right forearm and hand. Five weeks later, after multiple lengthy operations and seven days on intensive care, she was on the slow road back to health in a discrete rehabilitation centre.

Millie’s accident and subsequent recovery were of great interest to Australia’s gossip-crazed media. She was the only daughter of Melbourne’s most glittering celebrity couple comprising Ben ‘Jacko’ Jackson, a former Australian Rules Football star and Bella Dellaponte, an actress of soul-drenching beauty. When the accident happened, Millie had been in the passenger seat of the vehicle being driven by Bella who suffered only a mild concussion and a fractured clavicle. According to a leaked police report that nobody had actually seen, the passenger airbag had not activated for some reason and Millie’s seatbelt was not fastened. No other vehicle was involved. And, as everyone knew, Bella was no stranger to drink and drugs.

Jacko and Bella had been successful in keeping the press away from Millie and not a single image of her poor battered face had emerged. Bella had bought an iCare-Companion so Millie, without the use of her right hand, could keep in touch with her many friends and navigate easily through the apps on her smartphone. When the iCare-Companion was first powered up at Millie’s bedside, it asked her what name she would like to use. She replied “Skippy.”

Clint Simpson was the editor of the The Gozzeroo, Australia’s top glossy gossip mag. He was known to his colleagues as ‘Webbo’ after he published some below-the-belt dirt on a high-profile politician. In response, the politician referred to Clint as a ‘funnel web,’ the continent’s most lethal and stealthy spider. This had secured him a reputation as the nation’s top scandal-monger and a nickname of which he was pathetically proud. And now, Webbo had received some images of Millie Jackson recovering from her ghastly injuries. The story had it all: a celebrity family, a beautiful just-teenage daughter, medical drama and the enticing possibility of drink- or drug-based culpability. He felt a delicious adrenaline rush at the thought of the outrage that would accompany the publication of these photos. Lawyers would go into a frenzy. The public would be appalled by the invasion of Millie’s privacy but sales of The Gozz would sky-rocket.

Webbo had acquired the photos of Millie from a doctor by the name of Cheryl Adams. One of Webbo’s contacts in the casino had observed Cheryl’s addiction to the poker machines and knew that she was part of the medical team looking after Millie Jackson. One simple phone hack established that Cheryl had built up over $30,000 of debts. A member of Webbo’s team staged a meeting with her, invited her for a drink and made an offer that would get her out of debt. He also gave her a phone with one pre-loaded number. The following day, at Millie’s bedside and under the guise of checking a therapeutic schedule on the new phone, Cheryl snapped a couple of shots of Millie’s face, vivid scars and all. Everyone would presume it was one of Millie’s visitors who had taken and passed on the photos. No one would know it was her, Cheryl. No one, that is, except Skippy who knew the time the photos were taken, who was in the room at the time and the transmitting and receiving numbers. Skippy, recognising a breach of medical confidentiality, transmitted this information to Bella who informed the hospital authorities who alerted the police.

The Gozz received a court order prohibiting the publication of the photos just before that edition went to press. Webbo was furious. He reluctantly admitted that he had been outwitted; he just didn’t know by whom. Cheryl was asked to attend a hearing at the Australian Medical Council and lost her license to practice. She went on to find her true métier as a croupier. Millie was almost entirely shielded from these dramas and continued her steady convalescence. The next photos of her appearing pretty and smiling that reached the public’s attention via social media were taken at a friend’s birthday party. A make-up consultant who specialised in concealing facial scars had earned her hefty fee.

🤵 ⚓ 💥 🥩 🤔 🏳️ 💵 🕊️ ☕

Much nearer to Bingham on Bure, Will Montgomery-Hugh sat on a busy commuter train into central London. He was the Member of Parliament for Fribden and Hockington; a comfortable home-counties conservative seat. Today, he was deep in thought and on the point of making a life-changing decision.

At fifty-five years old and single (since an amicable divorce ten years before,) Will’s political profile was on the up. He was seen as a potential mover in the domain of national security and defense matters. His bearing and dress hinted at a military background. Anyone looking into his pre-parliamentary life would find that he had served his country with a long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy. What was not in the public domain was that this career included four years in command of one of the UK’s four Vanguard submarines each of which carry eight Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles equipped with multiple nuclear warheads. Nobody knew of Will’s recurring nightmares left over from carrying the awful weight of responsibility for pushing the nuclear button if so ordered. Nobody, that is, except his elderly father, Admiral (Ret) Sir Godfrey Montgomery-Hugh.

The weekend before, Will had visited his father at his small cottage deep in the Surrey countryside. They enjoyed a lunch of roast beef followed by trifle all prepared by Sir Godfrey’s long-time housekeeper.

“Thank you, Father. That was delicious, as usual,” said Will as he helped Sir Godfrey through to a small comfortable sitting room hung about with maritime memorabilia.

When Will had first told his father of his nightmares and voiced his doubts about Trident and the whole notion of nuclear deterrence, his father had proved to be a remarkably sympathetic listener. After they had taken their seats, Sir Godfrey eyed his son. Thirty seconds of silence passed. “So?”

“So?” repeated Will. He took a deep breath. “I’m just not sure I can carry on, Father. I am increasingly unhappy about using my position to lobby for renewal of the Trident programme. I don’t believe in it. However, I don’t intend to resign my seat.”

“All hands on deck!” Sir Godfrey barked as he reached out his index finger and tapped the top of his iCare-Companion. The blue light came on.

“Good afternoon, Sir!” said the device.

“Good afternoon, Nelson! We’d like to put a question to you.”

“Certainly, Sir. How can I help?”

“Could you give us a concise summary of why this country should not, I repeat, not, possess nuclear weapons?”

“Yes, Sir. If I may, I will frame my response to you in answer to three questions. Can nuclear weapons end a conflict? Do nuclear weapons deter use of nuclear weapons by others? Could the money be better spent?”

“Sounds like a good tack!” said Godfrey. “Carry on!”

“Thank you, Sir!” replied Nelson. “The use of nuclear weapons against the cities of Hiroshima on the sixth of August, 1945 and Nagasaki two days later is widely believed to be the reason why Japan surrendered to the United States so ending World War II in Asia. In fact, this is incorrect. Sixty-eight Japanese cities had already been destroyed by American bombing and Japan had indicated no willingness to surrender. On the same day as the Nagasaki bombing, forces of the Soviet Union overran the Japanese army in Manchuria. Scholars who have examined Japan’s official records of those days found that the Imperial Command decided to surrender to the United States because under no circumstances would surrender to the Soviet Union be acceptable.”

“Bit of a myth buster, that one, Nelson!” said Will.

“Yes,” continued Nelson. “Of course, a country suffering a nuclear weapons attack may lose the means to indicate a desire to surrender.”

“Good point!” replied Will.

“What about the question of deterrence, then?” asked Sir Godfrey.

“Well, it depends on what you believe. Many believe that the USA and the Soviet Union never got involved in a nuclear war because both sides were deterred from using these weapons; the only possible outcome was mutually assured destruction. Neither side could possibly win. Hence the “cold” war that, by the way, was not so cold for the countries in which it played out. All to say, the logic of nuclear deterrence is difficult to follow and the evidence that such deterrence exists at all is questionable. Those states possessing a nuclear arsenal cannot harbour any doubt about the deterrent importance of these weapons because any such doubt leads to the conclusion that the only thing nuclear weapons can do is to make nuclear war possible. So these states hang on to their belief in deterrence otherwise possession cannot be justified. I have difficulty making sense of it.”

“Thanks again, Nelson’” said Will. “I am all too familiar with these circular arguments. They are still the cause of many sleepless nights.”

“As for cost,” continued Nelson. “Looking specifically at the UK’s Trident programme, the foreseen renewal will cost the tax-payer two hundred billion pounds.”

“At least!” said Will. “And this would cover staffing costs of the National Health Service for four years.”

“This brings me on to the elephant in the room, so to speak.”

“What’s that?” asked Sir Godfrey.

“The impact of a nuclear detonation on people. Some time ago, the group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War gave authoritative predictions of what would happen in the event of nuclear war. They described how, depending on population density, one nuclear detonation would kill tens of thousands of people immediately from the blast. Many more would suffer severe burns and radiation sickness. The organization described this as the “final epidemic” for which there would be no cure and no meaningful medical response. They were awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for making medical reality a part of political reality. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently concluded that in the event of use of nuclear weapons, an effective humanitarian response for the victims would be impossible.”

Will and Sir Godfrey sat deep in thought. After a while, Nelson broke the silence. “If I may, Sir Godfrey, could I ask you to look at your laptop? It’s already open. I feel I should show you this if only to lighten the mood.” A video started. It showed a panel discussion. One of the panelist’s whose nameplate said “Dr. Shyla Patel” was concluding a presentation about a total prohibition of nuclear weapons. She said “The British public would, given a choice, rather lose nuclear weapons than tea.” The audience laughed. Will wondered whether it might just be true.

Now, lost in thought looking out of a grimy train window at the endless grey terraced housing of suburban London, Will decided he would announce his opposition to the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons. He would lobby against the renewal of Trident. He would, if necessary, change party. He would be prepared to lose the seat of Fribden and Hockington. He would bring his know-how and authority to the issue of nuclear disarmament without breaching the Official Secrets Act. He would work closely with credible and influential institutions such as Chatham House. He would be vocal. He felt a wave of relief course through his being and a broad smile spread cross his handsome face. The smile was noticed by an attractive woman in a smart business suit seated opposite who had also noticed the lack of a wedding band on Will’s left hand. She also smiled just as Will looked up at her.

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.