What World Ben
It’s 6:30am on a warm spring morning and Ben is just waking to the sounds of the Brighton seagulls squawking. He stirs a few times, rustling from side to side like an unsettled leaf. He’s clinging onto the ends of a dream involving guns, goons and secret missions bestowed to him by a great sorcerer of the night. He’s trying to push the seagulls out of his dream and he out of reality. But it’s no use. The seagulls are in a feverish mood today, big swarms of them are frantically flying around the Whitehawk estate, fighting for whatever scraps the night has churned out for them. They are famished and desperate as the lockdown has stripped the streets of almost all human food waste, in turn cutting off the main food supply to the army of gulls throughout Brighton city. If it weren’t for the bins, they would become savages.
Ben is awake now, the seagulls unbeknown to them have woken this disgruntled 12 year old boy among many. Before his eyes have adjusted to the morning’s break of light through the gaps in his blinds, his arm is stretched out in a subordinate like fashion. He reaches and feels around on the side table, locating what he assumes must be his most cherished possession, the iPad. Its radiant light projects itself towards Ben’s puffy eyes and finally he is able to see. He logs into his favourite game (Call of Duty) and begins the day with a vast myriad of violence and suspense. He forgets about the seagulls, forgets about the morning light, about his troubled family, the bullies in the estate and he enters the world where he can reign supreme over his digital friends. Where he can be the dominant force he’s always dreamt to be.
Well over an hour goes by and Ben still hasn’t gone to the toilet, eaten or brushed his teeth. He’s lying in bed with the covers up, staring deeply into the fictitious world of blood, guts and glory. His mum yells from the hall ‘Beennnn, it’s time to get up’. He hears a faint noise but pretends he can’t and chooses to ignore it. 10 seconds go by and he hears nothing of major concern so continues playing. Another ten seconds go by and he’s just about to finish off two opponents with a double kill shot when his Mum slams open the bedroom door and yells again, this time with more elevated attention being drawn to it ‘Ben get the hell up right now’. He jerks in fright, misses the shot and in turn gets killed. ‘I need you to go down to the shop and get some bread and milk’. ‘Alright mum, alright, I’ll get ready now’ he moans a little too himself about getting killed and begrudgingly flops out of bed, beginning the slow process of getting changed and ready for the big wide world of lockdown Britain.
‘Now Ben come over here’ chirps his Mother Lauren from the living room, where she’s now slumped on the sofa in her nightgown watching Good Morning Britain with a strong cup of English breakfast. Her feet are up and crossed on the black Ikea coffee table in front of her. ‘This is the exact money for a loaf of white sliced Warburton’s and a pint of semi skimmed, it’s end of the month so we’ve got no money for Saturday morning treats (she pauses) and besides every days a Saturday for you at the moment so that’s a treat enough, innit son?’ instructs Lauren. ‘Yes Mum’ Ben replies, eager to leave so he can continue playing COD on the 5 minute walk down to the shop. ‘Hurry back as quick as you can Ben, your sister is getting hungry and we need that bread and milk, you hear me?’ ‘Yes Mum’ again he replies. ‘Don’t be short with me Ben, wise kids don’t get far in life, now get going’. Lauren notices the iPad tucked under Ben’s left arm, almost out of view but not quite. ‘And leave your iPad here, you don’t need that bloody thing to get bread and milk, it’ll only slow you down’. ‘Yes Mum’ he replies then realises and quickly adds ‘of course not, I’ll put it in my room on the way out, cya soon’.
Ben gets going just as his mother instructed, except on the way past his room he contemplates what his Mum said. Slowing down and feeling the warmth of the iPad under his arm. He stares contemplatively into his room, then looks back in the direction of the lounge and quickly shuts the bedroom door, making a break for the flat door with his trusty companion still under his left arm. He’s disobeyed his mum which is always a dangerous move. But Ben figures, she’ll never find out, she won’t move from that sofa until I’m back and besides it’s me going out to the shop, I can bring whatever I want.
The flat door slams behind him and he makes out in the direction of the lift as he begins tapping and tracing his fingers around the iPad until it’s unlocked and he’s locked into another game of COD. Ping! The lift doors open and Ben walks in, head down, enveloped in the game. He jerks his neck for a fraction of a second to see where the ground button is. Pressing it as his attention is already fixating back toward the game. He notices the lift smells of piss and smoke, which is not unusual, but it still makes him grimace a little. He figures some of the older boys must have got drunk last night and hung out in the lift. Such aspiring kids of the block. Ping! The lift door opens and he’s back on the move, playing his game and opening and closing the block doors behind him.
He’s become a very intuitive gamer while walking. This isn’t the first time he’s taken his iPad out for a walk. He gives about 80% of his attention to the game, keeping 20% for the outside world and its potential life threatening and non-life threatening hazards. These include buses, cars, poles, trees, walls, gutters and people. Most importantly the older kids on the estate, for which he is terribly frightened of. Kids who are always out, always stirring and always hungry to pick on the weaker, smaller kids of the estate for which Ben is definitely one. As it’s still early he’s thinking they shouldn’t be out yet, hopefully nursing hangovers or just oversleeping on the account of their adolescence laziness.
At the ripe old age of 12 Ben is quite the Cod aficionado, making 80% of his attention still enough to play and to win. If only he had the know-how and firearms of his Cod world out here in the real world. Nobody would mess with him. I would be the gun slinging king of the estate. Kids would murmur my name from all over the City. The big bad ass Ben of Whitehawk, you wouldn’t want to cross him the wrong way in the street. He will finish you off in one single kill shot almost always. Bam! and your head will be flying high and exploding far. He imagines all of this fairytale dominance as he remains fixated on the game at hand.
As Ben walks with his head aimed solely at the iPad and the ground underfoot, he has no awareness of the outside world. All of the influence of today and its subtle beauty is passing him by. The wind, the strong Atlantic wind tearing in from the channel. Remaining constant in its direction and strength, pouring in from the SW with streams of esteem. Winds of pride rippling through the extended branches of the iconic British beech trees. The sun bearing its spring warmth down onto his pasty neck and bed headed hair. The wayward squirrel darting fleetly to and fro as it negotiates the poles, pavers and cars, eyes locked on a wayward nut buried within the grass. The old man walking up the other side of the street, fearing the virus tremendously as he’s been classed in the extremely vulnerable club with diabetes and 86 years of life under his belt. He’s entered the world with great distress every day since this whole fiasco started. However his simple, earnest will to breath in the fresh Atlantic air and feel the radiance of the sun on his withering flesh and bones is simply too much to bear. He wears a mask from door to door, cutting a single lap round two blocks but it’s an essential part of his routine and he is not prepared to give it up. Not for no one, thing or virus. No matter how much Boris barks on TV, this old man will live and die by his own walking accord.
Ben walks past a young mother fox and her five strong litter bundled together and hiding under a parked car. So immense in their fragility, they lay waiting for a quiet opportunity to scramble across the road and down the labyrinth of paths to the fields behind the row of houses. Out scrounging for food scraps, the family have managed to find just enough to survive another day. So now they must retreat back into the safety of the tall, grainy grass, where they will remain until the cover of night turns the page on the dangers of the day and they can venture out for a midnight snack. Ben misses it all as he remains constant, walking that line, playing his game, giving attention only to the bare bones of his survival. Slowly and surely, Ben has managed to walk about a half mile and is soon to be approaching the corner store.
The squirrel got his nut, the mother fox led her litter into the field, the old man is back home behind closed doors safe for another day and the winds keep on blowing in from the sea to the streets. Ben is continuing his dead eyes, feet trailing walk. He’s staring as deep as he’s ever done with the whole of his attention now fixated to the game as it’s beginning to reach a climactic scene where he’s been cornered in an abandoned house and needs to shoot his way out or die. He begins to slow his walk off to an almost stop as he’s a mere 15 metres out from the shop. Just as he backs his pace off, just as his attention of the outside world has waned to almost nothing. Just as the game is reaching a pivotal, vital full stop he trips on a loose paver. A paver that’s broken in half and has a deep fault line running through it. One half is protruding upward and the other unfortunately down. It’s created a lip of about 20cm and it’s enough to send poor, fixated Ben toppling forward. He wasn’t moving in any great amount of speed, but his total, ensured fixation has rendered his limbs useless in flight.
Poor Ben wasn’t ready for this ill-fated fall at all. Not a single fraction of a bit. He has fallen flat on his face, scraping his knees a little, bruising his cheek a little more and the iPad, his priceless tool for world domination through escapism has left his firm grip and had its own wayward journey, landing a couple metres ahead of him. He groans and moans as he picks himself up and begins to piece together what the hell has just happened. Did the game’s bullets enter the real world, and have I just been sniped from above? After assessing his knees and pressing softly on his puffy cheek to feel the pain, he sees his motionless iPad just ahead. It too has fallen face first.
Ben quickly limps over, picks it up and turns it around. He sees his face through the broken glass of the screen’s dark hole of reflection and sees only terror. The screen has cracked and split into many pieces and after pressing on the on button he quivers even harder in realising that it’s not turning on. He falls to his knees once more holding the iPad and waves of anxiety and fear start rolling through his body as he pictures his Mother on the sofa and her words as he left. Her stern face with quick, accusing eyes. He squeezes the iPad as he begins to whimper. Small tears of sorrow and anger begin to form around his eyes and start to melt down past his sore cheek and fall toward the iPad’s broken screen. Ben is beginning to feel real sorry for himself now as he starts to question his existence in an iPadless world. Without the escapism of his game he wonders how he will cope. His mother sure won’t try to get it fixed any time soon and that’s even if it can be fixed. It may be irreparable. The tears are really starting to flow now, streaming down his face, rolling towards the concrete floor on their way to hard truth.
After a few minutes of complete and utter disgrace in himself and his new life Ben manages to pick himself up. As he steadies himself with a bruised cheek, puffy eyes and sore knees he notices a girl dancing her way up the street. Peering out from his two swollen eyes, he’s starting to make out the figure, being fairly certain that it’s Bekki from the year below him at school. She’s really moving! He thinks. One two to the right, one two three to the left, she spins, she stomps, with her little arms projecting in all types of manners and fashions. She’s got her headphones in and is brimming with exuberance as she skips and dances her way up the street. She’s wearing a pink crop top with pale blue jeans and her blonde bob of hair is prancing about the air like a jellyfish on the run. It’s a sight to behold for young Ben who is typically so absorbed in his gaming that he’s not noticed a girl do such a thing before. He is starting to get a bit nervous now as she’s clearly coming his way and at her rate of skip and dance, she should be upon him imminently. He tries to wipe the tears from his eyes with his wrists, grabbing the bottom of his shirt quickly and swiping it across his face in one final wipe. She approaches, still in her own world of sensed out Spice Girl glory, still moving with an infectious aura of fun as she dances right up to Ben and takes off her headphones.
‘Oh, wow Ben, are you okay? What happened to you? Have you been crying?’ Bekki worryingly investigates. ‘Ahh yeh, well, I kind of tripped over and fell, fell flat on my face and knees. I think it’s pretty bad, it hurts a lot, how bad does it look? My cheek hurts the most’. Blurts out Ben. Then he pauses for a couple of seconds and remembers the iPad. ‘Ohh yeh and I also dropped my iPad and the screen has smashed into heaps of pieces, so my life is pretty much over, mums going to kill me’. ‘Aww that’s awful Ben. Yeh your cheek is a bit swollen but not too bad, I’m sure your mum will understand. The main thing is that you’re alright. Lucky you haven’t hurt yourself any worse’. Bekki replies with a caring yet carefree tone. ‘No you don’t know my Mum Bekki, she can get so mad. She won’t care that I’m hurt, she will just care that I took the iPad out when she told me not to and that I’ve taken way longer than I should have. I swear she cares more about my sister than me’.
‘Well I guess if she told you not to bring it out and it’s broken then yeh she’s going to be a bit mad. But she’ll get over it. Also don’t be such a drama Queen, of course she cares about you, all Mums care about their kids, it’s just the way it is’. Replies Bekki. ‘Yeh I guess you’re probably right, I'm shit scared anyways so I better go as I’ve still gotta get the milk and bread and walk home’ says Ben. ‘Yeh fair enough well I’m glad you’re ok’ Bekki pauses and thinks, clearly mulling a decision over in her mind, toying with the idea, time starting to stretch on into that awkward space. ‘Maybe tomorrow we could go for a walk around the estate together if you want? I could show you some of the dance moves I’ve been working on. I know we aren’t meant to hang out with anyone, but I think if you’re walking then it’s ok. My mum does it all the time with her friends’. Ben replies a little hesitantly ‘Ahh, yeaahh, if you want to then yeh that sounds nice. I haven’t got my iPad anymore so I’m going to get very bored. Getting out the house away from Mum sounds good to me’ replies Ben. ‘And hanging out with you sounds nice also’ Ben awkwardly says after the fact making it sound even more awkward. ‘Well we aren’t hanging out, it’s just a walk but yeh whatever, I’ll see you at 11 tomorrow, let’s meet here ok?’. ‘Sounds good to me. Thanks Bekki’. ‘No worries, cya tomorrow’ Bekki replies as she’s already putting on her headphones and beginning to feel out the rhythm to her routine as she vanishes up the street.
Ben goes about picking up the rest of his iPad off the concrete and ventures into the shop to buy the milk and bread which instantly reminds him of his Mother sitting there, on the sofa, with her feet up. God it ain’t going to be pretty getting home and explaining to Mum what’s happened. He thinks as he’s handing over the £1.90. Ben then exits the shop and starts heading up the slight hill back to the block. It’s not long into the walk and Ben is becoming real sick of thinking about getting home and facing his Mum. It’s beginning to drive him nuts, so he desperately tries to forget about it.
He starts to look around a little, desperately trying to distract himself of the impending doom. He starts to notice the trees, how they’re really whistling and swaying from the strength of the wind. He notices the seagulls flying overhead, soaring like the great scavengers that they are. Two are hurtling across the sky and fighting in mid-flight. Ben notices them and is thrilled by this, he becomes slightly mesmerised by the two birds. The wing control to fly like that while fighting is pretty impressive. He thinks. He carries on, remaining vigilant in thought and sight, soaking up some of his surroundings as he walks along the street of the Whitehawk Estate. Continuing to distract himself of the potential flogging he’s imagined his Mum giving him. Within a couple of minutes he’s crossing the road just out the front of his block. He gives a slight wave to a lady walking down the pavement toward him who he kind of recognises from the block. ‘Hello’ He remarks as they pass each other. ‘Nice day isn’t it’ the Lady replies while continuing on her downward trajectory. Each of them feeling something comforting and warm wash over their hearts by this tiniest of encounters.
Ben walks into the flat to face his mother, feeling sore and sorry about not having his iPad to play COD. Feeling shit scared about having to tell his Mum. Knowing he disobeyed her by taking it out and that that has meant it's now broken. Although all of those very real, hard to comprehend truths are presenting themselves in the present scope of his misfortune, he feels a certain resonance with the world that he hasn’t felt for a long time. The chance encounter with Bekki after the fall, watching her dance her way up the street and her honest, caring nature for him. Offering to walk around the estate with him tomorrow. Noticing the winds, noticing the seagulls, saying hello to the lady who probably needed to hear that. He feels a certain, assured fondness for the last 20 minutes of his life and he realises it was all because he didn’t have his iPad. He would have experienced none of that if he didn’t fall and break his beloved iPad.
His Mum gives him a sure bollocking, yelling and saying how stupid he was for taking it. Yells at him black and blue for a good five minutes while she fixes breakfast for his sister. But after that she also tends to Ben’s wounds and tells him ‘You’re just going to have to live without your iPad for now as we haven’t got the money to fix it this month. Maybe next month’. Bens a little sad at this prospect, but surprisingly to him and most of all to his Mother, he’s not complaining. He’s not angry, upset or frustrated at the thought of not having his most prized possession. Some unquantifiable human and natural connection has taken its place in his heart and it feels a whole lot fuller because of it. ‘Yeh I’m ok about that Mum, I know I shouldn’t have taken it out to the shops, also you won’t believe it but I’m going walking tomorrow with Bekki from school. She’s one of the coolest girls in the year below and she’s asked me to hang out with her’. ‘Is that right? Well good for you son, you need to get out the flat more. Good for you’. Ben walks into his room, lays down on his bed and thinks yeh good for me.