Here's the short story I mentioned yesterday:
On the morning of his fifty-second birthday Maureen Kozar pushed her husband headlong into the twenty-first century. After he’d unwrapped the cardboard boxes Maureen glowed with pride as she showed him how to connect the monitor and keyboard and plug in the modem. “You get instant Internet access too,” she enthused. Henry kissed his wife on the cheek. She was forever thinking of new ways to make his life interesting again. Up until now he’d only used a computer to track down out-of-print gardening books in the reference library.
In the event his entry into the wired-up world wasn’t exactly instant. According to the instructions it should only have taken a few minutes to get connected but like most men Henry never read instructions. Over the ensuing days he attempted to barge his way into the computer age. Each time he was rebuffed by a bloody-minded machine that appeared to have taken an instant dislike to him. His frustration mounted but he was damned if he was going to be beaten by a contraption only a few steps higher up the evolutionary ladder than their dishwasher.
The stand-off between man and machine was only resolved when Maureen eventually came to his rescue, as she always did. Leaning over his shoulder she prodded the keyboard with the insouciant expertise of a heron spearing fish in a garden pond. “It’s easy,” she purred, relishing the power of her technological superiority, “All you have to do now is click this button on your mouse and you’re there. See.”
Henry glared at the flashing screen. “Where?” he bleated, enraged, “What mouse? Where am I?”
Maureen smiled indulgently. “It’s a portal, dear. Your entrance into the future. Think of it as the first page of an interactive encyclopaedia.”
Henry already had a dog-eared copy of encyclopaedia which had served him perfectly well for the last twenty years. Sighing resignedly he said, “Okay, okay. Just leave me to it. I’m not a complete idiot, you know.”
Maureen smiled to herself as she went downstairs. Not complete, no.
Alone in his study Henry stared blankly at the Search Engine, the half open doorway into whatever it was that lurked out there in “cyberspace”. He shook his head. Even the language was baffling. He regarded the keyboard with suspicion. Maureen had said that all the accumulated knowledge in the universe was now available to him at the press of a button. He tried but failed to think of something he didn’t already know. Determined not to appear foolish he tried to think of something he actually wanted to know. Anything. Minutes passed but his mind remained blank. For the first time he was confronted by the vastness of his own ignorance. Over the years his horizons had narrowed, his imagination had grown sclerotic. In the end he typed in the name of the local junior football team. The screen leapt into life and he was inundated with a mass of information about the team’s results and scoring averages and favourite restaurants and hobbies and attendances and even hotdog sales. An involuntary click on the mouse sent him spinning off into deepest cyberspace.
Three hours later he staggered out of his study reeling from the sensory bombardment. He felt as if he’d just spun off a high-speed merry-go-round.
“Well?” said Maureen.
He was lost for words. “It’s a bit overwhelming, isn’t it,” he muttered eventually.
“’Silent, upon a peak in Darien?’”
He smiled ruefully at the erudite allusion. The chaotic world he’d discovered wasn’t exactly what Keats had in mind. “Something like that.”
“It’s the future, dear, a world beyond imagination. You never know, it might even change your life.”
Henry looked sceptical. “Can it make me happy?”
Maureen laughed. “It probably can – if you know where to look.”
He subsided into his favourite armchair. Maureen poured him a sherry. He opened the evening paper but his thoughts were miles away in cyberspace. Perhaps Maureen was right – she invariably was. If he knew the right questions to ask perhaps there might be answers worth ferreting out amongst all the dross. Secrets previously known only to a select few. Knowledge that could transform his life, rescue him from the mediocrity into which he knew he had sunk since he had accepted early retirement. All he had to do was to find the right questions and the answers, the answers he had been looking for all his life, would be his.
The following night after he had finished pottering about in the garden he sat up in his room confronting the insolent, garish screen and hesitantly typed his own name, H. Kozar, into the search engine. To his astonishment he was rewarded with over twenty-five million hits (he was already learning the terminology). His exhilaration was short-lived. He quickly discovered that the vast majority of the web pages he subsequently clicked onto actually referred to other people, mostly called Harry. He apparently did not exist on the net, he was a non-person, not even an echo in Cyberspace. He felt slighted, somehow demeaned by his failure to leave his mark in even this ethereal world. Doggedly, he worked his way down the list of websites. To his horror he soon found himself confronted by various series of pictures of a well-endowed, totally naked woman. One of his many namesakes appeared to be a former Playboy model who seemed to be hugely popular judging by the number of sites devoted to her. Overcoming his initial embarrassment he scrutinised some of the various sites devoted to her charms. He hadn’t seen such pictures for years, certainly not in his own home and he found the experience quite shocking. It was such an unexpected intrusion into his familiar little world that it was almost like being burgled. He wondered what on earth Maureen would think if she knew what he was looking at. He hurriedly switched off the computer and crept back down to the safety of his armchair.
Maureen looked up. “Everything all right, dear?”
“What? Yes. I think so.”
“Only you look a bit pale to me. Your not going down with anything I hope.”
“I’m all right.”
“How is the Internet, dear? Are you discovering lots of brave new worlds?”
Recalling some of the less salubrious sites he had just visited he felt as guilty as a naughty schoolboy caught behind the bicycle sheds with his trousers down. “I’m still looking,” he muttered sheepishly.
“Let me know if you need any help and we can surf together.” Maureen looked pointedly at her husband. They needed to do more things together.
The following night he was alone again in his study and navigating his way round more uncharted regions in cyberspace. He couldn’t stop thinking about the images he’d stumbled across the day before. They were so graphic it was hard not to. He hadn’t looked at pictures of naked women since he’d last bought a Playboy magazine thirty years previously when he was still a student. Innocent stuff by comparison, almost coy. Amazingly he found he could remember the name of one of the models he used to admire so much. Connie Kreski. At least, he thought that was how her name was spelled. He hadn’t thought about her for years but now his curiosity was aroused. His ideal woman, she had personified everything that was good about his youth. He was really curious to know how she had turned out. Had she fulfilled her early promise? Had she avoided the sort of disappointments in life that had brought him so much unhappiness? Before now there had been no way of finding out but even he could see the almost magical power of the internet to research lost worlds. Of course, the chances of finding any traces of her after so long were probably remote. He was sure her brief appearance in Playboy, her fifteen minutes of fame, had long since faded from recorded history. Still, if nothing else the search would put the much-vaunted powers of the net to the test.
Sitting down in front of the screen he tingled with the kind of anticipation that had once gripped him while he hesitated outside the slightly seedy newsagents of his youth. Plucking up courage he laboriously typed out her name, one letter at a time. C-O-N-N-I-E-K-R-E-S-K-I. He pressed the enter key and the search engine sprang into life, burrowing back into a bygone era. Within seconds he was deluged with hits, thousands of them. He was astonished by the response. He had been sure that he was the only person alive who remembered her from all those years ago. His astonishment soon turned to dismay when he discovered that all of the referrals were in fact pornographic sites totally unrelated to Connie Kreski. Somehow the unseen forces from that shadowy world had hijacked the name of the beautiful flower child of distant memory and were using it as bait to lure the unwary. Angry and upset at the cynical way her memory was being desecrated in this way he switched off his computer and retreated to his armchair.
Maureen was reading the newspaper, a slightly distracted look on her face. “Happy surfing, dear?”
Henry was anything but happy. “If you ask me the bloody thing’s grossly overrated,” he said, blurting out the words much more gruffly than he had intended. Maureen looked hurt. Henry immediately felt a pang of remorse. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.” His brief exposure to the twilight world upstairs had somehow blunted his sensibilities, coarsened him, made him in some way less human. He decided there and then that his journey back into the past was over.
It took two days for his curiosity to get the better of him.
Resuming his search he spent the best part of a week tracking down five different images of the real Connie Kreski. Blonde and virginal, coy and mostly partially disrobed in a variety of artistic poses, she looked truly beautiful although not exactly as he remembered her. Of course, as he reminded himself, it was over thirty years since he’d last set eyes upon her. It turned out she had been Playmate of the Year in 1969. With her slim figure, her long-blonde hair and large innocent eyes she epitomised, at the age of twenty-two, his perfect woman. The same age as himself, she recaptured the spirit and the aspirations of his own idealistic youth.
In one of the photographs she was dressed in flared jeans and a tight blue sweater. She was laughing, without a care in the world, an exciting future ahead of her, the very embodiment of youthful optimism. This particular picture was his favourite. After a few days he deleted the other images, deciding that their revealing nature only demeaned her memory. Studying the solitary remaining image it suddenly occurred to him that he must have married Maureen not long after that photo had been published. Maureen was short and dark-haired and, even in those days, ever so slightly plump. The exact opposite of Connie in fact. Of course, in real life looks weren’t what mattered. Nevertheless the belated realisation of how far he had diverged from his physical ideal came as a shock.
That night Maureen looked slightly concerned when he eventually came downstairs just before bedtime. “On the net again?” Her voice sounded strained. He was up there every night now, for hours on end.
“Yes. Takes forever to find anything, doesn’t it. Still, at least it keeps me out of trouble.”
“Watch you don’t become addicted,” she said, only half joking, “What’s so interesting anyway?”
Henry hesitated. “Oh, I’ve just been surfing around really.”
“Surfing?” She raised a quizzical eyebrow. She was surprised at how quickly he had adopted the terminology of this strange new medium.
“Mainly historical sites.”
“History? That sounds interesting. Which period?”
“Well, popular culture to be more exact. The sixties mostly. Things I had forgotten.”
Maureen looked surprised. “The sixties?” She couldn’t help laughing. “Flower power? Loon pants? Make love not war? You were never part of that scene, Henry. You were an accountant.”
Henry was annoyed by her reaction. Over the last few day he had become increasingly convinced that the sixties had been a pivotal period in his life even if he hadn’t realised it at the time. He could see now that in some ways he’d been sleepwalking ever since. He said, again a little too brusquely, “The past is important. Particularly when you see where it all went wrong.”
Maureen bit her lip. She looked hurt, as if she knew the remark was aimed at her. After Henry sloped off to bed she sat alone in the silent sitting-room wondering what he really got up to during all those hours he spent locked away in his room.
By now Henry was totally obsessed with the idea of finding out more about Connie Kreski. He was desperate to know if she had fulfilled her early promise. He really hoped she’d had a happy life, happier than his had turned out. He thought if he could track her down it might be possible to e-mail her and tell her how much she had meant to him at a key time in his life. He might even, and he could barely contain his excitement at the thought, actually get to meet her. He laughed aloud at the wonderful, preposterous ambitiousness of the idea. Energised by the prospect he returned to his quest with a determination that belied the inertia of recent years, of numberless evenings slumped in front of the telly watching rubbish.
After another dozen nights spent gazing blearily at the headache-inducing technicolor screen all he managed to discover about Connie was that following her Playboy appearance she had featured as a supporting player in several undistinguished films. Then she had vanished. Although he felt discouraged he refused to give up. Somehow it was important to him, somehow her fate held a key. He searched diligently for another month. By the end of January he still seemed no nearer to tracking her down. For the first time Maureen complained about the amount of time he was spending in front of the computer. They had a tremendous argument, their first for many years. Although he felt guilty about neglecting Maureen he told himself it would all change as soon as he’d completed his quest.
It was March and the garden was still blanketed in snow when he eventually made the vital breakthrough.
Belatedly he had discovered that there existed in a sort of parallel universe on the net a community composed of thousands of so-called Newsgroups on every imaginable topic. Each Newsgroup was the conduit for millions of conversations exchanging ideas, opinions, and information among people who shared a common interest, even obsession. Eventually, by trawling laboriously through thousands of messages, Henry tracked down several references to Connie Kreski. Reading these conversations at first was like eavesdropping upon somebody’s private phone calls and he felt uncomfortable. Later his discomfort changed to anger at the callous way these people - almost exclusively men he realised - discussed his beloved Connie. The crudity of some of the conversations made his head spin. People expressed themselves in e-mails in a way they would never dare in real life. It gradually dawned on him that there were thousands of men out there engaged in searches like his own, although he was sure that very few shared his idealistic motives. Many sounded distinctly odd. One or two were downright psychopathic. The one thing they all had in common was that they were sad and lonely individuals looking for something they couldn’t possibly hope to find. He pitied them.
As spring limped into summer he burrowed deeper into the hinterlands of cyberspace, stumbling through worlds that became ever more bizarre and disturbing. It became an increasingly melancholic odyssey. Connie seemed to have been lost in space. Only once in several weeks did he hear her name. Out of nowhere someone claimed that Connie was the most beautiful Playmate ever (Playmate was an epithet he about which he was increasingly ambiguous – Connie, his Connie, was a woman, a real person, not somebody’s plaything). It was a faint whisper, soon drowned in the babble of conflicting counterclaims.
It was the third week of June before he finally stumbled upon the lead he had been looking for. There had been no hint that he was getting closer and he was almost ready to admit defeat. It was very late on Saturday night and his eyes were tired and his head ached. He was about to switch off the computer when an obscure reference to a Japanese newsgroup caught his eye. He clicked on the hyperlink and the question he had been asking himself for the last six months leapt out at him.
“Anyone out there know what happened to Playmate Connie Kreski?” asked someone from, of all places, the Ukraine.
With his heart thumping Henry quickly hunted down the answer. It was posted by an American whose name had cropped up regularly in various newsgroups over the weeks, one of those guys who seemed to know everything about everyone. Before he dared read the reply he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. His heart thumped so loudly it made his ears hurt. He was about to step through the door into his lost youth, re-entering a magical landscape he thought had been lost forever. With the end of his long and exhausting odyssey at last in sight he could hardly hold the mouse steady as he clicked onto the reply.
“Sure. Connie Kreski – PMOY 1969. Cute face. Died last year of lung cancer.”
Henry stared at Connie’s brutally short epitaph on the screen. It was the last thing he had been expecting. He felt the same sense of loss as he had when he heard on the radio that John Lennon had been shot, back in 1980. With a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach he realised that even with the power of the internet there was no possibility now of ever going back. He felt betrayed. The Internet had promised him everything but instead the real world had defeated him.
Five minutes passed before he had the strength to turn off his computer and shuffle slowly downstairs. He wiped away a tear before he entered the sitting room.
The television was off and Maureen was flicking through her library book, unable to concentrate as she fretted about her lost husband. She looked up wearily. “You’re finished early, for a change,” she said, unable to hide the resentment in her voice.
Henry was still in shock. “That’s right,” he muttered thickly, “I’m finished.”
Maureen sensed that there was something wrong and immediately relented. She hated to see her husband looking so miserable. “By the look on your face you must have reached the seventies,” she said, attempting a joke.
He put his arm around her. “To tell you the truth I never left the sixties.”
Maureen looked up and smiled. “There were worse times, dear.”
“Yes,” he said, “I expect there were.”
In the weeks that followed the computer lay neglected in his study, the modem disconnected. Henry spent his evenings curled up on his armchair recuperating from his loss. His grief was made worse by his inability to share his feelings with Maureen. His loneliness deepened.
Summer dragged bleakly on and in desperation Maureen enrolled them both in a bridge club. After his initial awkwardness Henry took to his new hobby with gusto. A few months later he crept up to his room and dusted down the computer. He hooked up the modem and with a quivering forefinger tapped out his first-ever e-mail to his glamorous new bridge partner. Her reply exceeded his wildest expectations.
It seemed that the internet had its uses after all.