Tom Baxter had worked it out.
He’d always felt guilty at being a bit of a slacker. But that was the wrong way of looking at it. The Earth was in danger not because of people like him, not because of couch potatoes vegging in front of box sets of Game of Thrones, nor retirees pottering around their gardens. It was doomed because of the compulsive spenders, the exotic holiday takers, the must-have-the-latest-electronic-gadget businessmen. The young professionals who propped up the endangered hardwood bars at last orders, drinking implausibly expensive cocktails or artisanal craft ales. The people who worked hard and played harder.
He had worried that his lack of consumerism set him apart and worse: that his nonsmartphone set him increasingly adrift. But really, he was saving the planet, at the vanguard of an eco-movement he hadn’t realised existed.
Which it didn’t, not really; not until an idle Sunday afternoon on the laptop bagged him a domain name, a Twitter account, and a few plagiarised posters.
“Take it Easy, Save the Planet” was his first effort.
Then, after another cup of tea, “Chill Out and Stop Global Warming.”
And after that, inevitably, predictably, “Keep Calm and Eco On.”
A bit of a cliché, perhaps, but far less work than the others had been, once he found a website that generated “Keep Calm” posters for you.
After adding a short explanatory blurb and a couple of Gaia-themed photos, he clicked “Publish” and wandered into the kitchen for a late lunch.
Three hours later #TakeItEasy was trending, but by then, Tom was in the bath. Five hours later, as he sat down, oblivious, to catch up on MasterChef, he went officially viral. And just as he climbed into bed with an hour or two or three of reading ahead of him, his nonsmartphone began ringing.
Though that was pretty much the full extent of its capabilities, Tom’s phone never rang. Or hardly ever. Never this late on a Sunday.
This late being 9pm.
“Tom? Tom Baxter?”
“Yes,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Ah, good. You ready to go in five?”
“Um, go?” he echoed. “Go where?”
“Ah ... have you not been picking up your messages?”
Tom glanced warily at his antique Nokia. It took text messages as well as made phone calls, of course it did. But the envelope icon was conspicuous by its absence and he had a suspicion they weren’t, in any case, the type of messages the caller meant.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Never mind, I have you on the line now. Whatever you do, don’t hang up. In ... oh, about four minutes I’m going to put you through to Emma.”
“Emma Barnett, of 5 Live Hit List?”
“You do know the format?”
“Um, no, not really?”
“Emma discusses the top internet stories of the week.”
“Actually, you may have to wait a little longer than four minutes, as you’re currently zooming up the charts.”
“Oh yes, you’ll be on in the second half at this rate. Has your phone got enough battery power to last another thirty minutes, or shall we switch over to Skype?”
Tom had heard of Skype. His sister’s kids used it to keep in contact with their friends after they changed schools. He’d never installed it himself; he doubted his seven-year-old laptop would cope and besides, he didn’t want anyone to see that he was already in his pyjamas.
“Phone’s fully charged,” he lied. That was the great thing about old mobiles like his: the battery lasted ages and even one bar would usually see him through the next 12 hours.
“Excellent. So Emma will talk to you about your campaign. Keep the answers short, and no swearing please!”
“Of course not.”
“Great, great. Any questions, Tom?”
“Um, yes. One. Does this mean I’m going to be on the radio?”
• • •
By the time the briefest of brief interviews took place, he, or his online eco-campaign, had crept into the week's Top Ten. He couldn’t really remember what he'd said, it was all a blur and over so fast, but he’d gotten a laugh out of the presenter and hadn’t, as far as he could tell, made a complete arse of himself, so he counted it a success.
Once it was over and he had a chance to fire up his creaking laptop, he was amazed to see the followers he now had, the number of retweets his #TakeItEasy had got. The sort of numbers he always assumed you’d have to pay for, or be Stephen Fry, or something. And he'd been online less than a day.
He checked his email, thankful he hadn’t linked it to the Twitter account, as he might otherwise have missed the messages from the hosts of his new web page, warning, threatening, and then actually closing the site down for exceeding his free bandwidth.
Well, he thought, as he logged off the laptop and muted his mobile, at least that might slow things down a little. And, like Crazy Frog or QR codes, as soon as the attention of the internet turned elsewhere, he'd quickly become nothing but a distant memory.
He was wrong.
By the time he woke into the bright sunshine of late morning, a half day’s relaxed freelance copyediting ahead of him, crowdfunded benefactors had stepped in and TakeItEasy was online again, with even more followers and comments than before. And the BBC were back for a TV interview. They even sent a car.
Sat on the lurid green One Show sofa in his worn jeans and crinkled T-shirt, he rubbed the weekend stubble he’d not had time to shave, wondering what he’d got himself into.
“Are you all right?” asked a runner name-tagged Jane, taking away the Styrofoam cup of bitter coffee and swapping it with a more TV-friendly glass of water.
Tom mumbled yes and she placed her cool hand on his clammy one. “You’ll be great,” she assured him, “I’m a big fan.”
And somehow that made it all so much easier.
The not-a-couple hosts introduced him and then asked what he was campaigning for.
“A better work-life balance,” he said, “A three-day week. Technology, freeing up our time. The things we were always promised, that are now more important than ever.”
They asked if he really thought slacking off would save the planet.
“Um, no, not really, no more than washing at forty degrees will save the polar bears. But at least we won’t be hurtling quite so fast towards the abyss and perhaps that will give the scientists and politicians a chance to do something, rather than just talk about it.”
“Do you grow your own food?” they asked.
“No,” he laughed, “too much like hard work. I leave that to the experts. Farmers, I think you call them. I'm for simple sufficiency, not self-sufficiency. Self-sufficient is inefficient.”
They asked what he did in his spare time. “Oh, I read and walk and sleep. Sleep is a much underrated activity: very eco-friendly.”
Then they asked him the question he'd expected them to ask: “What about the companies that make the things you’re telling people not to buy? What will happen to them?”
“Do companies serve us, or do we serve the companies?” he asked in rehearsed reply. “Anyone who thinks manufacturing can continue as is and we can still avoid global warming, is rather more delusional than people are going to say I am.
“We’re enslaved,” he continued, “working longer hours than ever, to service debts from buying the latest gadgets, which we’ll replace within the year, or to earn enough money to fill the few spare hours we're granted with energetic and expensive leisure activities. But why? Why not work a little less, earn a little less, and enjoy ourselves more? Live life at a slower pace. The world would be a far better, cleaner, healthier, and happier place.”
It took up three minutes of airtime, all told. A fluff piece; the orange-skinned hosts in their shiny suits and dresses cooing with nostalgia at the sight of Tom’s Mars Bar-shaped phone. It wasn’t a particularly new message—there was even a reference to The Idler, a magazine devoted to indolence. But, combined with fears of global warming, it seemed Tom’s casual campaign had hit a nerve.
There was another argument Tom had prepared, just in case it came up, which it didn’t. That the modern day mating ritual required you to show your financial clout by the cut of your clothes and newness of your gadgets, and if you didn’t impress, you wouldn’t undress. A surprise, then, to find runner Jane’s card and number in his hand as he left Broadcasting House.
• • •
The month that followed went by in an uncharacteristic whirl, Jane at his side and in his bed. While the sex was great and he was grateful, it did seem to take an awful amount of time. Oh, not the actual ... y’know, but there was always a march to go on before or after, a company to picket for their environmental impact. And while a relaxed evening in front of the telly was more Tom's thing, it was hard to say no, especially as Jane usually painted her protest banners in the nude.
But her militant style wasn't what he had in mind when he started TakeItEasy. It was too frenetic, too demanding. Plus, Jane was a vegan.
He could see the sense in it, really he could. Everyone in the world becoming a vegetarian would do a lot more eco-good than anything he was proposing. But ... oh god: bacon?
It was a bit of a struggle adjusting to her expectations of him.
Coming back from yet another march, one on which Jane had somehow managed to get herself arrested—“See you in 48 hours,” she’d said, blowing him a kiss as his eyes watered up from the lingering gas—he was relieved to finally have an evening to himself. But when he turned on the living room lights, he found he wasn’t alone after all.
A shadow of a man wearing a dark suit with black gloves lurked in Tom's favourite reading chair.
“Are you ... the police?” Tom squeaked, wide-eyed, wondering if they were rounding up the rest of the day's marchers.
“Police? No, Mr. Baxter, I’m not. I represent a mixed bag of corporations, government agencies, and the National Allotment Association. Please, take a seat.” He waved a semi-automatic in Tom’s direction and Tom quickly sat.
“The interests I serve are not keen on your eco-evangelism, Mr. Baxter. We don’t like your kind of prophet. Aha.”
Tom wasn’t sure if he should laugh or not, as the man in black smiled thinly at him. “Um ...” he flustered.
“It’s bad for business, I'm afraid. So we want your campaign to end and end now. It can do that in one of two ways: the hard way, or the easy way. I'll leave the choice entirely up to you.”
• • •
Tom spent the next day either opening boxes or answering the door to yet another delivery. He’d never seen so much stuff.
The exposé ran in all the newspapers: “Hey Big Spender!” was probably the least hostile of the headlines, but even that had a subheading slamming him as an "Eco-Fraud!" He'd hidden his Twitter account because of the haters and his website was taken offline, this time permanently, by hacker collective Anonymous.
He was dreading the phone call from Jane, but when it actually happened, he hadn’t had to say much. His position was clearly indefensible. The telephoto through-the-window pic of him tackling a big, juicy steak kind of clinched the deal.
To be honest, he was almost glad.
Taking It Easy had been bloody hard work.
Copyright © 2017 Liam Hogan.
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk.