There is a phone, there is a phone, there is a phone like no phone that was ever hatched by the feverish imaginations of the world's phone manufacturers, a phone so small and so featureful and so perfect for my needs that it couldn't possibly have lasted. And it didn't. And so now I hunt the phone, and now I have...
I saw it sitting in the window of the Cash Converters in the Kentish Town High Street. This little pawn-shop was once a tube-station, believe it or not, used as a bomb-shelter during the Blitz, and you can still find photos of the brave Sons and Daughters of England sleeping in ranks on the platform rolled up in blankets like subterranean grubs waiting to hatch, sheltering from Hitler's bombers as they screamed overhead. Now the top of the station is a pawn-broker's, and around the back there's a "massage parlour" that offers discrete services for the discerning gentleman.
I am no gentleman, but I am discerning. And what I am discerning right now is a HTC Screenparty Mark I phone, circa 2014, running some ancient and crumbly version of Google's Android operating system and there, right there, on the back panel, is a pair of fisheye lenses: one is the camera. The other is the projector.
That's the business, that projector. The Screenparty I was the first-ever phone ever delivered with a little high-powered projector built into it, and the only Android phone that had one, because ten minutes after it shipped, Apple dusted off some old patent on putting projectors in handheld devices and used the patent to beat the Screenparty I to death. And yes, there were projectors in the iPhones that followed, but you couldn't do what I planned on doing with an iPhone, not with all the spyware and copyright rubbish that Apple's evil wizards have crammed into their pocket-sized jailers.
I had to have that Screenparty. So I squared up my shoulders and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, and I thought, You are a respectable fellow, you are a respectable fellow. You did not eat garbage this morning. You did not sleep in an abandoned building. You did not grow up on a council estate. You are a bloody toff.
A deep breath—fog in the cold air—and I was through the door, winking back at the CCTV that peered down at me from the ceiling, then smiling my best smile at the lad behind the counter, who looks like any kid from my estate, skinny and jug-eared with too many spots that are the colour that spots go when you pick at them.
"Hello there, my son," I said, putting on the voice that a toff would use if he wanted to sound like he was being matey and not at all superior.
The lad grinned. "You like the phone, mister? Saw you lookin' at it. Just got it in, that one."
"It's a funny little thing. I remember when they first came out. Never worked very well. But they were good fun, when they did."
The lad reached into the window—the shop was that small, he didn't even have to get off his chair—and plucked out the phone. I saw that it was absolutely cherry—mint condition, the plastic film still covering the screen. Which meant that the battery was almost certainly in good nick, too. That was good—no one made batteries for the Screenparty anymore. He handed it to me and fished behind the counter for a mains-cable, then passed that over, too. I plugged one into the other and hit the power button. The phone chimed, began to play its animation and then the projector lit up, splashing its startup routine on the ceiling's grimy acoustic tiles, a montage of happy people all over the world watching movies that were being projected from their happy little phones and played against nearby walls.
I waited for it to finish booting up its ancient operating system with something like nostalgia, seeing old icons and Chrome I hadn't seen since I was a boy. Then I tapped around and finally said, "You won't be wanting much for this, I suppose. A fiver?" It was worth more than five pounds, but I was betting that the lad didn't really know what it was worth, and by starting the bidding very low, I reckoned I could keep the final price from going too high. (Well, it couldn't go too high, since all I had in my pocket was ten pounds plus some change).
The boy shook his head and made to put the phone away. "You're having a laugh. Something like this, worth a lot more than five quid."
I shrugged. "If that's how you feel." I sprinkled a little wave at him and turned for the door.
"Wait!" he said. "What about twenty?"
I snorted. "Son," I said. "That phone was obsolete four years ago. It's a miracle that it even works. If it breaks, no one'll be able to mend it. Can't even buy a battery for it. Five pounds is a good price for a little fun, a gizmo that you can amuse the boys with at the pub."
He took the phone out of the window. "I got all the packaging and whatnot, too. Came in from a storage locker that went into arrears, the company sold off the contents for the back-rent. Will you go ten?"
I shook my head. "Five is my offer." I had noticed something when I came into the shop, a little ace in the hole, and so now I fished it out. "Five, and a bit of information."
The boy rolled his eyes. I upped my mental estimate of him a little. Pawnbrokers must get every chancer and twit in the world coming over their threshold with some baroque hustle or other.
"I'll give you the information and you can decide if you think it's worth it, how about that?"
The boy narrowed his eyes, nodded a fraction of an inch.
"That game back there, that old DSi cartridge in its box, just there?" I pointed, then quickly put my hand back down. I forgot about the new cuts there, a little run-in with some barbed wire, not the sort of thing a toff would have. The boy reached into his case and pulled it out: Star Wars Cantina Dance Off, he said, setting it down on the glass. The box was a little scuffed, but still presentable.
"Google it," I said. He snorted and turned around to get his phone. In one smooth motion, I dropped the Screenparty in my pocket with one hand and opened the door with the other. One step backwards took me over the threshold, and I pivoted on my back foot so I was facing forward and did a runner, lighting off up the Kentish Town High Street toward the back streets, down the canal embankment, and off along the towpath. As I ran, I thumbed my panic button in my coat pocket and the infra-red LEDs sewn into my jacket all went to max intensity, blinding every CCTV I passed.
Yes, I stole the bloody phone. But that lad got the best of the deal, have no fear: Cantina Dance Off had a secret mode that let you make Jabba get up to all kinds of disgusting sexy things with slave-girl Leia, not to mention what you could get Chewbacca do to R2D2. It was pulled off the shelves in 48 hours and is the rarest video-game ever sold. As of today, copies are changing hands for upwards of 15,000 quid. So yeah, I stole the phone. But I could have bought Dance Off for three pounds and flogged it for 15 grand. The lad got the best of the deal. I'm an honest thief.
* * *
Cecil was at his edit suite when I came back to the squat, a pub in Bow that some previous owner had driven into bankruptcy and ruin, but not before covering its ancient brickwork in horrible pebble-dashing, covering its crazed hand-painted signs up with big laser-printed vinyl banners swirling with JPEG artifacts, and covering up the worn wooden floors with cheap linoleum. The bank—or whoever owned the derelict building—had never got round to turning off the electricity which powered the boiler that kept the damp from eating the building alive.
Cecil sat cross-legged on a banquette, scowling at his screens, hands flying over his mouse and trackball, scrubbing the video on his screens back and forth. He didn't look up when I came down the stairs, having chinned myself to the upper floor by the moulding around back of the pub, through the window with the loose board. But he did look up when I sat the phone down in front of him, with a precise click as it touched the table before his keyboard. He looked at me, at the phone. Rubbed his eyes. Looked back at me.
"Oh, Fingo, you shouldn't have," he said, and smiled like a million watts at me, scratching at his stubbly chin and neck with his chewed-down fingernails. He picked up the phone in his nimble hands and turned it over and over. "Been ages since we had one of these. What'd you pay for it?"
I smiled. "15,000 pounds."
He nodded. "They're getting more expensive."
* * *
There's about eight of us in the Jammie Dodgers, which is what Cecil calls his gang. "About eight" because some come and go as their relationships with their families wax and wane. Cecil's 17 and he isn't the oldest of us—Sal is 20, and I once heard Amir admit to 22—but Cecil's got all the ideas.
Cecil and I grew up on the same estate, in a part of east London where rows of Victorian paupers' cottages had been taken over by rich children who turned the local pubs into "hotspots" where you wouldn't find anyone over 25, where the fashion designers came to spy on the club-kids for next year's "street wear" line. Pubs where you could get a pint for a couple pounds turned into places that sold "real ale" for a fiver and eye-wateringly expensive Scotch over perfectly formed ice-spheres.
Credit: Nico Hogg
We weren't mates back then, not until both our families got dragged into the mandatory "safe network use" counselling sessions. He'd been downloading his obscure Keith Kennenson videos for his Great Work, whereas I'd just been looking to fill my phone up with music. We were both kids, dumb enough to do our wicked deeds without a proxy, and so we got the infamous red disconnection notice through the door, and both our families were added to the blacklist of households that could not be legally connected to the net for a full year. We all got dragged down to the day-long seminars where a patronizing woman from the BPI explained how our flagrant piracy would destroy the very fabric of British society.
Between the videos where posh movie-stars and rockers explained how bad we were, and videos where the blokes that held the cameras and built the sets explained how hard they worked, Cecil and I began to pass files back and forth. He touched his phone to mine and I tapped the "allow" button and got a titantic wad of video in return. I picked out a few dozen of my favorite songs to pass back, then snuck off to the bathroom to watch, screwing in a headphone and turning the volume down.
It was about ten minutes' worth of video, and it was of Keith Kennenson, of course. I knew him because he'd just played a hard-fighting cop who fought the mob in a flooded coastal California town, but this was from much earlier. Much earlier. It had scenes of Kennenson as a ten year old, talking with his dad (a character actor I recognized, but couldn't place), then as a teenager, mouthing off to his teachers, then back to his dad—pretty sure that the character actor was in another role, but it was a very tight edit—then forward to the latest Kennenson cop role, and it became clear that this was all a flashback during a tense moment while Kennenson was hiding out from gangsters under a pier, his breath rasping in the wet dark.
"What the hell was that?" I whispered to him when I got back to my seat.
He grinned and rubbed his hands. "The Great Work," he said, pronouncing the capital letters. "You know Keith Kennenson, yeah? Well, I'm making a movie that tells the story of all the lives he's ever played, as though it were one, long life—from the kid he played on Two Sugars, Please to the Navy frogman in Drums of War to the President of the United States in Mr President, Please! to the supercop in Indefatigable—all cut together to make one incredible biopic!" He mimed a cackle and rubbed his hands together, earning us dirty looks from the BPI lady who'd been lecturing us about how poor Sir Keith Richards couldn't afford to keep up his fleet of Bentleys and Rollers if we didn't stop with our evil downloading. He ignored it. "The music you sent me looks pretty cool, too."
I felt inadequate. But I also felt like he was a certified nutter.
At the tea-break, he grabbed me by the arm and hustled me outside of the leisure centre. We hid under the climbing frame in the playground and he sparked up a gigantic spliff—"it's just something we grow in an abandoned building site, hardly gets you off" he croaked—and passed it over. Then, as the munchies overtook us, he produced an entire packet of Jammie Dodgers—shortbread cookies with raspberry jam in the middle—from under his shirt, lifted from the snacks table.
Credit: Robyn Lee
"Jammie Dodgers! It's so bloody Dickensian," he said, giggling around a mouthful of cookie crumbs and fragrant smoke.
I laughed too. "We should start a gang!" I said.
And three months later—when my Mum lost her benefits because she couldn't go online to renew them and couldn't get down to the Jobcentre to queue up for them, not with her legs; when his Dad lost his job because he wasn't able to put in the extra hours on email that everyone else was doing—that's exactly what we did. We'd caused our families enough trouble. It was time to hit the road.
* * *
I put the new OS onto the Screenparty while I was recharging it. It was finicky work—the phone was so old that I had to update it three times before I could get it to the stage where it would even accept the latest bootleg Android flavour, the one with all the video codecs, even the patented ones. I was worried I'd end up bricking it, but I managed it. Thank Spaghetti Monster for HOWTOs!
But the battery wouldn't take the charge. Age or a manufacturing defect had turned it into a dud. That sent me on another net-trawl, looking for a recipe to convert another battery for use. Turned out that HTC had followed Nokia's lead in putting in a bunch of crypto on a little chip on the battery that it used to authenticate to the phone, to prove that it was a real, licensed battery—so I had to get a similar HTC battery and transfer the auth chip to it, which was even more finicky.
It took the rest of the day, but when Cecil put one caffeine-shaky hand on my shoulder around 10PM, I was able to turn and beam at him and show him the phone in full glory. He beamed back at me and I knew I'd done right by him.
"You're a true maestro," he said, hefting the phone. Some of our fellow Jammie Dodgers had drifted in and out through my works that day, and now they filed in behind Cecil and giggled and poked each other like naughty children. Cecil rubbed the phone against a thumb drive and transferred his cut, then walked to the window, slid away the board, aligned the projector's eye with the crack and then used his laser-pointer to find the mirror he'd set into the wall of the tall council high-rise opposite the pub. He was trying to get the pointer to bounce off the mirror and then show up on the large, blank wall of the adjacent high-rise.
Once he had the shot line up, he fitted a little monocle to the projector's eye and tapped at the phone's screen. A moment later, the phone's speaker started to play the familiar sting music he used for his Great Work, and I rushed to the next window to see the result. At first, it was just big, fuzzy blur on the blank wall, a watery light-show. My heart sank—it wasn't going to work after all.
But as Cecil turned the monocle's focus dial, the image sharpened, and sharpened again, and then it was as if I was watching a film at a big, open air cinema—like one of those American drive-in theatres. There was no sound, but that was all right: there was Keith Kennenson, in his role as an angry priest struggling with alcoholism in inner-city Boston in Whiskey and the Drum, tearing off his dog-collar as he lost his faith, storming out the door, and now he was walking down a street that wasn't Boston at all - it was the moon base from Skyjacked!, and the cut was so smooth that you'd swear they were one movie, and Kennenson bounded down the ramp toward the main door where the bomber had hidden his charge, Kennenson's face a grim mask—
He clicked the phone off. The Jammie Dodgers lost our minds. "It worked, it worked!" We danced ring-a-rosie like toddlers and collapsed in each others' arms.
"Right, all good," he said. "Tomorrow night we move."
* * *
It's amazing what a lot of respect high-viz vest and a couple of traffic pylons will get you, even in Leicester Square. We started work at 8AM, when the only people in the Square were a long queue of tourists waiting for cheap theatre tickets and a few straights clicking over the pavement in their work shoes as they rushed for offices in Soho. Between me and Sal and Amir, we got nine little "security mirrors" placed on the walls of strategic buildings in less than an hour. At one point, a Community Support Officer—one of those fake coppers who sign up for the sheer thrill of the authority—even directed traffic around our ladder. I was glad of all the little IR LEDs I'd strung unobtrusively around my helmet then, for they surely blew out the cameras in his hat and epaulettes.
It was Cecil that hired the hotel room overlooking the square, using a pre-paid debit card from a newsagent's. They asked for his national ID card and he claimed in a funny mid-Atlantic drawl that he'd emigrated to the States ten years before and never been issued one, and said that his passport was at the Russian embassy getting a business-traveller's visa glued into it. They accepted a California "driver's license" that I made up at the squat, decorating it with a wide variety of impressive security holograms that I printed from a little specialist ID printer I found at an industrial surplus store. I was worried I'd overdone it—one of the holos was almost certainly a Masonic symbol—but the desk clerk just put it down on the photocopier and took a copy. The holograms did a great job of blocking Cecil's face on the copy.
* * *
From then, it was just a waiting game. Waiting for the sun to set.
Waiting for the crowds to fill the square. Waiting for the first film showings to let in, the huge queues snaking around the square as each attendee had his phone and electronics taken off and put into storage during the movie. Then the second screening. Finally, at 11:30, the square was well-roaring: everyone who'd been at the second show, everyone queued up for the third show, everyone spilling out of the pubs—a heaving mass of humanity.
"Leicester Square at night." Credit: rthakrar
You can fit eight Jammie Dodgers into a single-occupancy Leicester Square hotel room. Provided that they don't all try to breathe in at once. We breathe in shifts.
Cecil knelt at the window, phone on the sill, careful marks he'd made with a sharp pencil and his laser-pointer showing the precise angles to each mirror. He looked around at us all, his eyes shining. "This is it," he said. "My Leicester Square premier."
The monocle is already glued to the phone's back over the projector's eye. The phone's been fitted to a little movable tripod. And now, with a trembling fingertip, Cecil prods the screen. Then, quickly, nimbly, spinning the focus knob on the monocle. Then the hiss of air sucked over teeth and we all rush to the window to see, peering around the drapes.
He was much better on the focus this time, faster despite his trembling hand. There, on the marquee of the Odeon, Keith Kennenson as an eight year old, begging his mother to let him have a puppy, then a montage of shots of Kennenson with his different dogs, a mix of reality TV, feature films, dramas, comedies, the story of a life with dogs, the same character actors moving in and out of shot.
Below, the crowd boiled over. People were pointing, laughing, screeching, aiming their phones at the Odeon, and coppers were rushing about, shouting into their lapels, and—
He moved the phone, swivelling it to line up with the next mark and BAM, there was Kennenson again, a series of love scenes this time, writ large on the huge marquee of the Virgin Megatheatre, and the crowd looked this way and that, trying to see where the magic pictures made of light and ingenuity had went and they found it, and the police rushed around again and BAM—
It was now screening on the Empire, and now it was an extended battle, Kennenson fighting a shark, a ninja, terrorists, Romans, Nazis and BAM, it was in the gardens in the middle of the Square. The crowd was going wild, moving like a great wave from side to side, phones held high, getting in the cops' way.
Credit: Nico H
"Time to go," I said, watching more cops trying to push their way into the square, then more. "Time to go, Cec," I said again, tugging his arm. The other Dodgers were already stealing out the door, padding their way to the fire-stairs and the lifts, led by tall Sal with a pad of post-it notes that she carefully stuck over the eye of each CCTV as she passed it, her infrared LEDs having temporarily blinded it already.
Cecil let me lead him away. He was trembling all over, and there were tears rolling down his cheeks, though he didn't seem aware of them. We peeled off our gloves and stuck them in our pockets, pulled off our hairnets, and removed the disposable booties from our shoes. We made our way down the lift in silence, Cecil visibly pulling himself together, so that he was able to calmly nod at the night clerk, tossing a twangy, "Guh-night!" over his shoulder as we stepped out into bedlam.
And that is how I will always picture Cecil B De Vil, standing there on the edges of Leicester Square, face turned up to the flashing lights, cheeks wet with new tears, as the disposable phone abandoned in the hotel window played out another 18 minutes and 12 seconds of the Great Work before the law found it and shut it down, provoking howls from the crowd.
But the howls didn't turn ugly, didn't turn into a riot. Instead, what we got was—an ovation.
Somewhere in the crowd, someone began to clap. And then someone else clapped, and then hundreds were clapping, and whistling and catcalling, and Cecil and I looked at each other and he was crying so hard the snot was running down his face. I thought of my family on the estate and damned if I didn't start to cry, too.
For a pair of hardened gangsters, we were a bloody soppy pair.
Credit: Broken City Lab
More fiction in the Shareable Futures series:
- After the revolution, life goes on...and so do the bugs. In "The Exterminator's Want-Ad," science-fiction legend Bruce Sterling paints a satirical portrait of how one red-blooded American survives a regime of sharing.
- The award-winning "The Gambler" is a story of quiet heroism from Paolo Bacigalupi: "My father gambled on Thoreau. I am my father’s son."
- In "The Unplugged," Vinay Gupta imagines a future where ownership has been redefined as access instead of wealth.
- In "Centaur in Brass 2041," an isolated young man must journey through two war zones--one real and one imaginary--to find community and maturity.