Short Stories

Look4Me

Look4Me

By

Oliver Kennett

“Hello darkness my old friend”

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, The Sound Of Silence.

Daybreak

The early sun is a pleasant warmth on my face as I make my shambling way down Picton Street. I swing my white cane from side to side, tapping the uneven pavement and occasionally clonking hollowly into empty bins that boom like fetid base drums.

Reaching the end of the road, I listen for the wheeze of the extractor fan, sniff for the permanent landmark that is discarded chips and dropped kebab meat, and then step through the slicing shadow and into the shop. It is cool, the scent of news paper and magazine print is fresh as morning coffee. From somewhere in the back I hear the tinny voice of a radio announcer calling in the hour, like a town crier in miniature.

“Good morning there sir.”

Like most people, it unnerves me to find someone already in a room which I expect to be empty. Of course this is a shop, it would be ridiculous for it to be empty, and yet not knowing the location of people still unnerves me. It takes time to scan a room for sounds, scents, the slight tickle of air displaced by a body.

I turn my head toward the speaker, he is behind the counter.

“Morning, can I just get a pint of milk please.” I pause, thinking about last night’s pizza. “Better make that fully skimmed.” “No problem my friend.”

I feel a little daft, as I hear him leave his counter and plunge into the shop’s depths, skimmed milk is hardly going to off set a thousand calorie pizza.

Another voice from deeper between the shelves stops him and I hear a rapid fire exchange of a language, that I’m ashamed to say, I can’t identify. It sounds like he might be a while (kindness is rarely punctual).

And so, pulling out the perpetual sidearm of this magnificent age, I check Facebook. Nothing. No messages, no notifications. I sigh and flip over to Twitter which, in many ways is the cousin of Facebook, though a more spite filled, cynical, middle aged and drunk cousin.

The voice of the screen reader gabbles away through my bluetooth headset. I slide my finger down the screen, the voice obediently reciting recycled jokes, political vitriol, thoughtless brain farts and…

“@Blind Technology: A new app for the blind, Look4Me, uses AI to identify objects using your phones camera.”

I’ve heard of these sorts of apps before. Some clever algorithm processes the image and compares it with a database of known objects. Hey, it’s worth a try. I tap the link and begin to download the app.

“Here you go my friend.” The man behind the counter has returned and, before I can stop him, there is the rustle and he has plunged the tiny bottle of milk into a large plastic bag. Apparently, there is no need to save the environment where a blind guy’s milk is concerned.

I pay and with a:

“See ya…” A little joke of mine, I leave.

The return journey down the street is hampered by pedestrians, utterly oblivious to the blind man approaching from their rear until there is a collision of bodies and stammered apologies.

“It’s fine.” I say as I disentangle my cane from between a woman’s legs, “Completely my fault.” Of course it isn’t but, hey, she sounds pretty and smells nice.

I reach the relative quiet of the alley that runs beside my building, I let myself in and trot up the stairs, my cane clack, clack, clacks on the steps behind me as I attempt to juggle milk and keys.

The flat smells of last night’s pizza, my shower gel, coffee, and an odor which is difficult to identify. Living just off Stokes Croft in Bristol, one of the most diverse areas in a diverse city, odd smells are common, and are usually overlaid by a pervading scent of weed.

My keys clatter as I toss them onto the kitchen counter and set about filling the coffee maker. The rush of water, the thump of the tap as I turn it off, the gurgle of the machine as it awakes and then the increasing scent of coffee.

As I wait, I slip out my phone, an act as autonomous as breathing, and open it to the last viewed page. Yes, Look4Me, another half formed thought in a world rife with distraction. Telling myself that this could be useful and worth a shot, I open the app.

“Welcome to Look4Me,” announces my screen reader. “Look4Me is your key to distinguishing objects around the house, out and about and can even read text for you. Just hit ‘next’ to get going and start taking pictures.”

I follow these instructions, point my phone down the work surface and tap the ‘take picture’ button. There is the simulated click of a camera shutter and a computerised voice says: “Working, please wait.”. I too go to work and fix myself a large coffee.

When I scoop up my phone Look4Me has processed the photograph.

“A kitchen counter with a white sink, a coffee maker and two plates.”

Hey, pretty cool. I point it at the kitchen table.

“A mug on a table on a brown mat.”

Cool. Each time it takes a good twenty seconds, not bad but not great either.

I snap a picture of the floor.

“Grass” it says. I snap another picture of the floor. “Grass” It seems pretty certain about this. Remaining seated, I point the camera at the window from which I can feel a spoke of sunlight stroking my face and snap another photograph.

“Window, plant, shoulder.”

I frown, the first two are right. There is a bonsai tree on the window ledge but I’m on the second floor, the ‘shoulder’ part is slightly odd… unless it picked up someone in an opposite window. I take the photograph again.

“Window, plant.”

I guess it must still be buggy. Giving it the benefit of the doubt I continue for the next twenty minutes in, what I tell myself is a test, but of course, I’m just procrastinating and avoiding starting the day’s work.

It recognises TV, chess set, dumb bell (fortunately it doesn’t add, ‘dusty’), guitar, it also identifies my computer correctly, ‘Apple Mac Air’. It even tells me that ‘a white car’ drives past my house as I hold my iPhone out of the window.

I sigh. The day is marching on and I have work to do. I close the app, make myself another cup of coffee and settle in for the morning.

Mid day

I stop for lunch, it’s early I know, but work has been gruelling, a blog post for a law firm entitled “What Post Brexit Britain Means For Your Investments”. I shut the lap top lid a little to hard, stretch and climb stiffly to my feet.

As I stroll through the flat I snap a few pictures here and there, a bookshelf, a pot plant, a picture of a ship. It’s still having some problems as it also announced, forearm, back of a man’s head and, for some bizarre reason, a peacock.

I’m reaching for a loaf of bread when my fingers encounter a cylindrical object, ridged and wrapped in paper. I take the tin can out of the cupboard. Tin cans, as a rule, are a problem area for the blind as they have no discernible features to say what they are. It is like the label has been ripped away. Mealtimes can become similar to games of Russian Roulette, though, instead of a bullet to the brain, you simply get a can of peaches on your toast.

“Heinz baked beans” My new and trusted app says, and then “Hand.”

I shake my head, odd, I didn’t think I had my hand in shot, ah well, these new lenses are wide angle, aren’t they. I set about making lunch, adding a little brown sauce to the beans; an old trick from my Dad who claims soul responsibility for the innovation. Now, where is that chef’s knife, I’m sure I left it here, on the draining board? It would be wrong to say that misplacing things is the worst part about being blind, there are many other things like being unable to drive, gaze into a lover’s eyes, draw pictures of pretty girls in cafes before presenting it to them and vanishing into the day never to be seen again, but it’s certainly up there. I give up and get a normal, far less deadly and more practical piece of cutlery out of the draw to slice the toast.

I sit at the kitchen table and eat lunch. The toast is crunchy and hot, not yet soggy with bean juice, just the way I like it. As I eat my lunch I listen to the familiar sounds about the building, the bang of a door here, the wrap of feet there, the creak of a floorboard there. Familiar, comforting in their own way. I recall first moving in, how noisy I found the place, the road outside awash with voices, shouts and cries. Coming from such a quiet village in Cornwall it seemed abnormally loud but now I find it hard to sleep in a quiet house.

I finish lunch, wash up the pan, the plate and crockery and leave them on the draining board to dry and put the kettle on.

As the water begins to boil, I think of the growing pile of post on the window ledge just inside the door. I usually wait for a friend to come over and read it too me, usually a humiliating process as most of them are bills, but maybe, with this new app I can avoid the blushes and famed joviality.

Look4Me struggles when I hold up the first letter until I realises that it is upside down. I try again and the app says:

“Christopher Cline, 2 Picton Street, Montpellier, Bristol, BS6 5QA… and a smiling man.”

Bemused, I hit the repeat button. Again, the app says:

“Christopher Cline, 2 Picton Street, Montpellier, Bristol, BS6 5QA… and a smiling man.”

‘And a smiling man?’ What does that mean? There’s a picture of a smiling man drawn next to my address? I think. Could there be a reflective surface in front of me? The number of times I’ve spooked myself late at night by wondering what a noise is, only to remember I put the dish washer on, or the radio has been left on at the very edge of hearing, makes me certain that this can be solved. Maybe this app still needs a little work. Yes, that’s it, all this technology is still in its infancy, it’s going to make mistakes. I send a quick email to the developer to ask about these oddities. He’ll probably thank me for my feedback. I notice that the developer lives in America, oh well, he might not get it until later.

I yawn. There is one thing to be said about being a freelance copywriter, and that is the optional afternoon nap. And I wonder why I don’t sleep well at night.

I crawl onto my bed, put the radio on low and drift off to Vaughan Williams, soft breathing and the everyday sounds of the street beyond my window.

Twilight

I wake up fuzzy headed, confused as to where I am, what time it is and a dry mouth. I clatter about in the kitchen, unable to find a clean glass and drink straight from the tap.

It’s early evening, or so my braille watch tells me. Presumably it is dusky out there, but then again, I don’t know. I shower and get ready to go out. I’m meeting a friend round the corner to watch some music at the Left Bank, a diamond of a place. Just before I leave I check my email, a response from the Look4Me app developer.

‘Hi Chris,

Thanks so much for your email. Due to learning curve of the AI that Look4Me uses, and that it is very new, it will produce false positives. A common example of this is, rather than saying it doesn’t know what a carpet is, it will make an intelligent guess and say it is grass. But please, feel free to forward any images so I might see where the AI is going wrong.

All the best,

Bill,
Look4Me Developer’

I check the time, I’ve got five minutes so I upload all 25 images and mark the ones with, what my new friend Bill calls, “False positives.” I notice that it is over half of them. He’s obviously got his work cut out.

I shrug into my jacket, run my fingers through my hair, hoping it looks okay, and grab my keys. It’s pub time.

The witching hour

I’m pissed. It takes me a while to find my graffiti covered door and let myself in. I clomp up the stairs and, after dropping the keys several times, let myself into the flat. The familiar scent of the flat hits me, coffee, burned toast, my aftershave, laundry and that new smell, the one I still can’t identify.

I toss my keys onto the work surface. As I find and fill a pint glass with water and a pinch of salt, sure hangover cure, I notice how quiet it is in the street. It’s odd but not unusual. For a moment, I stand at the open window sipping my briny water, feeling the cool night air on my warm face and listen to the city. Distant car alarms chirp like urban cicadas, closer too, mens voices are raised in a song that I don’t know and, by the sounds of it, neither do most of the men singing it.

I sigh, and go into my room, put my pint of water on my bedside table, laboriously pull off my shoes and fall backwards. I feel dizzy and a little sick.

I hotch up the bed until my back rests against the Jenga stack of pillows, grunt as I pull my phone from my tight jeans pocket and check my notifications. A few messages from clients, they can wait. I blow a raspberry into the darkened room, the spittle lands on my face. Oo, an email from Bill, my mate Billy Willy… I snigger and nearly skip reading it, surely it can wait until the morning. Ah, screw it, lets see what Billy Willy has to say about his silly app that doesn’t work.

‘Dear Chris,

Thanks for getting back to me with the photographs. As I say, Look4Me is very young and can make mistakes however, apart from a couple of errors, i.e the peacock, very odd, the AI was correct. In the future, to make sure you don’t have the same problem, when you are taking a photograph of an object, you need a clean line of sight, difficult I know when you can’t see, but perhaps, you could ask your friend to not interfere with the shot. Bill.’

I read the last line again. A crawling dread creeps over my body, my skin contracts. I slowly sit up and turn my head trying to see through my eternal, impenetrable darkness. I then think of a missing chef’s knife. My throat has suddenly become very dry, I swallow. What malevolent thing does this darkness hold, this darkness just before me, standing right in front of me?

With a trembling hand, I reach out.

The end

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Mr Otter the dirty rotter

 

Mr Otter the dirty rotter

Mr Otter liked to be mean. It made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. He got the same enjoyment out of being mean as someone like you or I would get from doing something nice and good.

“I’m just born that way.” Mr Otter would declare and then go running off to upset someone.

The people of the riverbank said that Mr Otter the dirty rotter had a heart made of a blackened acorn and a soul as slimy and unpleasant as bacon fat. None of the other river side dwellers could be certain of this claim without performing some sort of surgery on Mr Otter which is, of course, a ridiculous thing to even contemplate.

“I’m going to do surgery on Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter to see if he has a heart made of a blackened acorn.” Said Timmy two brains; the local dinosaur and therefore doctor. “I will then attempt to prove that Mr Otter’s soul is as slimy and unpleasant as bacon fat.”

He coughed gently into his claw. No one in the old tree said anything. Most had fallen asleep as soon as the tree hall meeting began and were snoring very rudely and very loudly.

“Does anyone object?” Timmy Two Brains asked.

The riverside council shook their heads. They were sure that if Timmy Two Brains had an idea it was probably a good one, he did have two brains after all. Besides, they were bored and wanted to go and play outside in the sun rather than be inside this ancient tree.

“It is settled then.” Timmy Two Brains gave a wide smile which exposed his razor sharp teeth.

That night, as the moon rose into the night sky like a giant pingpong ball a claw was inserted in the lock of number 13 river bank cottages. The door swung slowly open to reveal a mat on the floor which read:

“Unwelcome” In big rude letters.

As you may have guessed, this was the home of Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter.

Timmy two Brains slipped silently into the house with his medical bag tucked under his stubby arm. The door was shut with a quiet snick of the lock.

Despite being mean Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter was very house proud. This was a strange thing as he never had any visitors. He would sneer as he dusted and say:

“I’m glad no one will be able to enjoy my spider web free house.” while the spiders themselves scuttled away to mutter and grumble in dark corners.

The house was full of shadows which, to Timmy Two Brains, seemed to harbour all sorts of horrors. A slipper there peeking out from under a chair. Timmy Two Brains shivered and what was that glinting wickedly in the kitchen. Timmy Two Brains swallowed, he turned his gaze away from the thing that looked horribly like a jar of peanut butter.

“I must be careful.” Timmy Two Brains whispered to himself.

“Probably shouldn’t have whispered that to my self.” The dinosaur whispered again.

“Or then.” His leathery brow furrowed.

It briefly crossed the clever dinosaurs mind that this was a rather silly situation. He was fairly certain that dinosaurs were rather unlikely to be around in the present age, let alone being a fully qualified medical practitioner but the thought soon passed and he crept deeper into the house.

Doors led off in every direction. Timmy Two Brains knew that behind one of them slumbered Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter but which one was it?

He listened carefully. Was that the sound of someone snoring like a jet engine on take off? Was that a sign that said:km>?
. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
“Mr Otter’s bedroom, shove off.” on the door.

Timmy Two Brains had a suspicion that he was getting close.

“I mustn’t make a noise.” The dinosaur whispered to himself.

“Probably shouldn’t have whispered to myself then.” He whispered again.

“I never learn.” and with that, he dashed into Mr Otter The Dirty Rotters room.

Now, you probably expect Mr Otter to be well, an otter. The funny thing is, he wasn’t. He was a small talking rose garden. He had simply taken the name to be awkward and confuse people.

There he lay with his flowers gently waving in the breeze from the window and glittering with water droplets that fell in a constant mist from a large shower head. He looked very beautiful.

With a roar Timmy Two Brains let atop the mean and unfortunate Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter. The spade came down and the dinosaur began to merrily dig.

“Oy.” Said Mr Otter. “Stop digging me up. That’s rather rude.”
I
I“I’m trying,” said Timmy Two Brains.“To do research on you without your consent, so please lie there and be quiet.”

But of course Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter was having none of it.

“I give you my consent.” He said cruelly. “You are very welcome to dig me up for medical research purposes.”

The dinosaur stopped and leant on his spade.

“But if you give me your consent that means I can’t dig you up without your consent.”

“I know.” Said the wicked little rose garden. “It’s deliciously horrible isn’t it?”

“You are so mean.” Said Timmy Two Brains as he wiped a tear from his black, reptilian eye.

“I was born that way. Don’t judge me man.” The horrible little rose garden said smugly. He rolled out of his flower bed, for this is where rose gardens sleep and slithered across the room to the large brass telephone that hung on the wall.

“Now I’m going to call the police and have you shot for being a stupid dinosaur.”

“Oh come on.” The dinosaur implored. “I’m a modern day marvel.”

Of course Mr Otter The Dirty Rotter, being mean, ignored the dinosaur’s protests and very soon Timmy Two Brains got shot.

You can find information about Timmy Two Brains and other such mad scientists at your local skip. Say that I sent you but please don’t use my real name.

© Oliver Kennett 2011