47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair


THERE was no doubt about it, thought Dr Phelps, as he surveyed the faces of the shoppers and workers through the two-way mirror that formed one whole wall of his city office.

There was no doubt about it - these people genuinely looked happy.

And, he reflected, leaning back in his black swivel chair and absent-mindedly flicking through the CCTV channels, that was in no small way down to him.

Instant diagnosis, that was the solution. Nip a problem in the bud before it even had a chance to exist. He had found the camera mounted on the outside of his office wall.

With a bit of remote control tilt and zoom, it gave him almost exactly the same view as his real one through the coated glass.

This was his favourite game.

Although his contribution to society was really the medical extension to the standard anti-terrorist facial recognition system - the software that could identify a problem through the national camera grid - Phelps was secretly prouder of his own personal ability to identify facial warning signs. After all, the computer’s knowledge was only a rationalised version of his own unerring instinct.

He put his feet up on his desk, revelling in his own invisibility to the passing crowds, and started to play.

That one was fine, and her, and the whole lot of them, laughing and giggling over their shopping. And here, amongst all the smiling, was a stern face, furrowed and focused as he weaved his way past the dawdlers.

Fine, thought Phelps. Nothing wrong with that. Motivated, busy, absorbed in his work. The smiles would come later, when he was relaxing in front of the TV, satisfied at another day well spent earning credit and career kudos.

That face was one of the basic positive models he’d programmed in. No need even to check the monitor to see if the system concurred. He knew that it had to.

More bland smiles and obvious contentment.

He moved his legs off the desk and sighed.

He felt deflated. This was no fun after all, no matter how satisfying it might be to contemplate the result of his genius.

He wanted a bit of a challenge, somebody to test his wits a little so he could demonstrate to himself yet again how astute he remained, in spite of his advancing years.

Aha - that could be one there!

The woman was walking fairly slowly towards him, weighed down with bags of shopping - electrical goods and children’s clothing by the look of it.

And she was smiling, of course.

But, Phelps noted to himself, not quite in the right way.

It wasn’t the obviously fake rictus of a smile that she was wearing and it wasn’t a telltale sadness of the eyes that gave her away.

In fact, to anyone but the most professional of experts (he ran a hand through his neat grey hair at the thought), she looked genuinely, undeniably cheerful.

And yet...

Phelps sprang out of his seat and rushed to the far end of his mirror-window, waiting for her to draw alongside.

And as she did so, he accompanied her step by step, face pressed against the glass, scrutinising her every blink and reflex.

She was walking very close to his wall, just inches away, and unbeknown to her she was virtually cheek by jowl with the scientist, as he scuttled along beside her.

Finally, he turned away.

“Yes, she’s one!” he declared out loud.

He stepped briskly back to his desk and, without taking a seat, clicked to the “view analysis” function on his computer.

Sure enough, there she was.

In a sea of faces now coloured green, she was bright red and flashing.

As she was now out of easy observation from his window, Phelps watched her progress via the cameras. Shouldn’t be long now.

Yep, there they were. The van had pulled up, the security hood was on and she was whisked off out of sight, bags of shopping and all.

The first time Phelps had seen this, it had worried him a little.

But then he had rationalised that no matter how frightening the moment of rescue, the long-term benefits were undeniable.

The medication would make this woman’s life a pleasure again and ensure that the next time she passed down this street it would be with the same, genuine, smile as these other citizens.

Phelps never ceased to be amazed at the astonishing success of his scheme.

The unhappiness reduction rate had outstripped his wildest hopes and represented an extraordinary victory, proportional to the numbers of people actually medicated.

It had perplexed him initially that the mathematics did not work, that his system had achieved something that was physically impossible.

However, he soon realised he had forgotten to take on board the knock-on effect. A happy mother meant happy children. A happy boss produced happy workers.

He had initiated an unprecedented, unstoppable chain reaction of contagious well-being. Not a bad achievement for one person, he told himself. Not bad at all.

And then he poured himself a very large vodka to head off that nagging bloody suspicion that the only thing his system had really achieved was to train millions of miserable people to perfect the subtle art of pretending to look happy.