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A Big Ask [BBOT]

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posted on Jun, 20 2010 @ 05:37 PM
I was in the kitchen, making up a stock of jam to take to the market when the Dutch couple came round.

“Halloo! May we come in?” Jan called through the open window. Anna stood beside him, grinning her ever-present smile.

“Sure. Come on in.”

“Thank you,” they answered together.

They opened the door and came into the kitchen but I only glanced up at them and nodded for them to sit. “Just be a minute. I’m half way through getting this last batch of jam into the jars.”

Anna picked up a empty jar and asked, “Where is another ladle? I can help you.”

“Thanks. First drawer on the right there.”

A few moments later she was filling jars with plum jam. Anna was faster at it than I was, every movement precise and deft. Jan sat and watched, knowing that the old adage of “too many cooks” certainly applied in this case. After a few moments he commented, “It will take you ten years to eat all this jam.”

I grinned. “It would if I were to keep it all for myself. I’m taking most of it to the market tomorrow. To barter for some things I need for my work. Nails, screws, wood stain, some good cloth, things like that. Some of my supplies are getting low.”

Jan laughed, “Oh, so this is why you make so much! I am thinking to me, ‘He must like this jam very much!’”

“To myself, not to me,” Anna corrected him as she carefully filled another jar. “And it would be better to say ‘I was thinking,’” she concluded. Her English was much better than his.

“Oh. Of course,” he smiled. Then he shook his head, and still grinning he said, “English is difficult for me.”

Anna and I began capping the last batch of jars. “Is Czech easier?” I asked.

Jan and Anna exchanged a grin and then he laughed again. “Czech easier? No, this is impossible!” Then he seemed to sober a little. “But necessary. Yes. Most necessary. We are living in their country so we must to learn it…I mean, we must learn it, even if --”

He trailed off and I realized that Jan’s cheerfulness had faded. Well, we all have our down times. Not surprising, considering what we’ve been through. I tried to remain upbeat. “Well, I managed to learn it, and if I can then I’m sure you can, too.”

I took the jam pot over to the sink and poured a few dippers of water into it. I’d long since gotten over the habit of turning on the taps, but even though there was no mains water and hadn’t been for some time, I still left them there. Maybe one day there would be mains water again. Maybe.

Anna wiped her hands on her apron -- she seemed to wear one all the time -- then she commented, “But you have been here for many years, since long before -- before the catastrophe. We’ve only been here for a few months.”

Had it really only been a few months since the Netherlands‘ last defences had given way and the rising seas finally flooded their country, as they had already inundated the homes and lands of so many hundreds of millions around the world? Was it really only two years since that fateful day when the Deepwater had burned and sunk and the oil and methane had started gushing from the depths -- and this whole horrible nightmare had begun? Only two years?

“True. But you’ll get the hang of it.”

Jan looked perplexed. “Hang?”

His wife giggled. Considering what this couple and so many of their countrymen and women had been through in the past couple of years, it was amazing how cheerful they were. Or at least, how they seemed to be. “It means we will learn the way to do it. To learn Czech,” she explained to him.

“Oh, I see.” Jan still sounded very downcast as he added, “Yes. We will learn.”

Once we had the workbench cleared we all sat down around the table and I poured glasses of cool water. It was a hot day and the best thing on such a day is a nice drink of water.

But then, most days were hot these days.

We chatted for a few moments, mainly discussing the weather and how our local forecaster had said she felt a cooler change coming within the week (and as she was more often right than wrong, we hoped this time she was on the money), and then we got into one of those awkward silences. Anna looked nervous and was casting glances at Jan and he was studiously looking down at the table, and neither of them wanted to meet my gaze.

The best way to deal with this situation is just plunge right ahead. “Now, what can I do for you folks?”

They looked at each other and there was some whispered Dutch, and after a few moments Jan nodded and then sighing a breath he finally looked me right in the eyes and said, “We have -- we have an ask. A big ask.”

I didn’t feel this was the moment to correct his English. Instead, I simply nodded encouragement. “Okay. Either I can help or I can’t. What is your -- your ask?”

He glanced down at his hands that were gripping the edge of the table and when he looked up again I was stunned to see tears in his eyes. “We lost our home. We lost our country. We lost many family, many friends…”

Anna reached out and rested her hand on one of his for a moment. “Jan,” she whispered.

He took another deep breath and did his best to compose himself.

“We are -- we are used to loss. It is in our history of our people through long times. But that does not make it more easy to -- to live with it. All we have is each other,” he went on. “We have no children. Maybe it is best that we have no children. We lost everything and -- and we have nothing to give them. No inheritance. Nothing.”

“But you’re both still young, Jan. You’re -- what -- thirty-eight? And Anna’s --” I wasn’t sure so I glanced at her.

“Thirty-three,” she finished for me.

“So there’s still time for you to raise a family, and build a bigger home, and -- ”

“But that is -- that is what is not true,” Jan whispered. He sat and studied his hands as if lost within his own thoughts, and Anna placed her hand on his once more.

“Shall I ask? If it hurts you too much…”

He clasped her hands between his own and gently shook his head. “No. We agreed that I will ask this thing, because it is of me.”

I waited. Sometimes it is better to just give people those few extra moments. Finally he spoke.

“You are a carpenter. A carpenter and cabinet maker.”

“Yes, Jan. That’s my trade.” I was already wondering what they wanted me to make. But -- why so much unhappiness? I knew what they’d been through. Being poor was no crime. If they needed a cabinet or some shelves, or window frames or even a new bed, I would gladly arrange some barter with them. Jan and Anna were good and willing workers. We could arrange something. So what was upsetting them so much?

“I -- I mean we -- we need something made, and it must be done well.” He swallowed then continued, “This is not a job that I can ask Anna to be doing. It is not in her skill. And also I do not have this special skill for the making of such things.”

“We all have our own skills and talents, Jan.” What did they want?

“Yes…” I saw the hint of a wistful smile and he asked, “Do you know what my work was, before -- before everything was changed?”

It occurred to me that I’d never asked him. When he and Anna had arrived they had been in pretty poor shape after their long trek across half of Europe, carrying just a few possessions on their backs, often only allowed to stay a few days in some places before they were moved on because there was not enough food or shelter. This was not out of malice on behalf of those other people, just a need to protect their own. So when they had finally arrived in the Czech Highlands -- Ceska Vysocina -- we had given them some shelter and food, and after a vote at the next town meeting they had been allowed to stay for what we called the “trial period” -- zkusebni doba -- to see if they could fit in and contribute to the community.

(Continued in post below)

posted on Jun, 20 2010 @ 05:39 PM
A Big Ask (Continued from post one.)

And they had done well, fixing up a small, ruined cottage for themselves and helping others in the community in any way they could. They were well liked and after the two month trial period, they had recently been voted in as permanent members of the community. But I’d never found out what Jan had done before the disaster unfolded in all its awful, unimaginable magnitude.

“I have no idea, Jan. I’ve seen you lumberjacking, laying bricks, picking fruit, digging ditches, playing the piano and singing, but -- ” I shrugged. “I simply have no idea.”

He sighed and seemed to sag a little. “I never tell anyone before. I thought that if you know -- if anyone know -- then maybe it will be very bad for us.”

Another pause. I waited. Anna gave me a look and I could see deep pain in her eyes.

After maybe half a long minute Jan went on, “I was a geologist. I worked for -- I worked for Royal Dutch Shell.”

“Shell,” I echoed.

“Yes. Shell. And I was -- I was very good at my job. And when the disaster happened and all the attempts to stop the oil and gas were not working and all was only worse and worse, I was with other experts who they ask to go to the Gulf, to see if we can do it anything, find maybe some solution.”

“So -- this was before the final, great explosion?”

“Yes. But I was there, only little while before that very terrible day. And it was only when we are in that region -- only then we discover about this radiation, how it is so high, so much more radiation than ever known for any leaking of oil and gas like this.”

“Oh my god…”

“Yes, I said this also,” Jan nodded, not a hint of irony in his tones. He was now very matter of fact, as if he were talking about someone else. “And so we were exposed. To this radiation.”

I saw Anna’s hand tightening on his and at a subtle nod from her husband she continued for him, “We thought that maybe he was lucky and did not get too much radiation. But Jan began to feel very unwell. It was several weeks ago, not very long after we arrived here. But we knew that we must be good workers and be useful. So he worked every day and if he was sick then he rested only as much as he needed to rest, and then he worked again.”

“It was -- It has been very hard,” he said simply.

“We thought he had a virus or something. But Jan is never sick like this and every day he was more and more tired, and he was getting dizzy and had trouble to see well sometimes, and also such terrible headaches… So -- so two weeks ago we took a carriage to the city and we found a doctor. He was very kind and he promised to tell no-one that Jan had worked for -- for an oil company. He sent us to his old friend who is a specialist. It is difficult with almost no electricity, but he has some solar panels and he was able to do some special tests, and -- and --”

Suddenly, she began to cry.

Jan moved closer to her on the bench and held her. Neither of them spoke. I got up and went to stand in the doorway that led off the kitchen to my workshop and just allowed them their grief. As I looked at all the tools I’d gathered, at all the cabinets and shelves and other work I had underway, I understood exactly what their “big ask” was.

Trying to stay detached, I itemized what I’d need for the task. I had enough planks. Good solid oak, well seasoned, a bit over six feet long, nice straight grain. Unlike many of his countrymen, Jan wasn’t all that tall, so they would still be long enough after I’d cut them and squared them off. And I could get the nails and screws tomorrow, and some stain to give the wood a nice tone. Beeswax would do fine for the polishing and I still had some in stock. Yes, I could get it done fairly soon.

After a while, I felt their presence beside me. Jan’s voice barely held back his pain.

“I -- have to be buried, you see. In our religion, it is against our belief to be -- be cremated.”

“I understand.” I wasn’t Jewish but I knew something of their customs.

Then Anna asked simply, “Can -- can you make it for us? We have so little to barter…”

I also understood that they didn’t want me to use my working time to make this coffin without them paying. Work, in its myriad, honorable forms, meant food and shelter and a place in the community. Work meant safety and security and friendship. “We can arrange a barter, Anna. It’s no problem. You can do things for people who will do things for me.”

It had to be this way. Small gifts were special these days. Anything larger needed to be paid for. We all knew that.

But I also knew one other thing for sure. I would set the price very low.


posted on Jun, 21 2010 @ 07:48 AM
I quite enjoyed this and didn't expect a European take.

Good work!

posted on Jun, 21 2010 @ 08:34 AM
reply to post by Ceriddwen

Thank you very much!

This oil "leak" (inadequate word) is a disaster of incalculable proportions. While much of Europe is probably more focused of the FIFA World Cup in Sth Africa at the moment, some of us still have our eyes on this unfolding catastrophe. After all, it could ultimately affect all of us, and many generations to come.

I built this story around two things. First, there is the scientifically accepted fact that methane gas is at least 60 times more "effective" as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Second, there is the mooted concept that if the oil and methane continues to flow uncontrollably from the GOM site, the gas could potentially cause world-wide temperatures to rise by between 3 and 10 degrees Celsius.

This would lead to a loss of most polar ice and the flooding of many low-lying regions.

True, there are many other possible scenarios and some of them have been made into excellent stories by members here, but at the end of the day I understand that while we are just writing stories, this real-life catastrophe is still growing worse day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

I hope I'll never have to use my carpentry skills to fulfil such a "big ask" under these circumstances.

Best regards,


[edit on 21/6/10 by JustMike]

posted on Jun, 21 2010 @ 11:02 PM
Great Story enjoyed it very much.

Hopefully if things get this bad, god forbid, there will indeed be ways to barter and such.

posted on Jun, 22 2010 @ 07:36 AM
reply to post by Izarith

People can be very resourceful, and as barter is a far older concept that the use of regular "money" then people will fall back on it if the need arises.

Back about 25 years ago or so, I had a place where I grew a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers. Just a home garden, but a pretty big one that produced far more than we needed. Each week I took some bucketfuls to our local fruit and veg shop and swapped (bartered) them for all the other fruit and veg my small family needed. An elderly lady down the road from us had some free-range chickens but she wasn't able to maintain a garden, so in exchange for fresh eggs we bartered some of our own produce -- and other fruit and veg that I'd got by barter from the local shop I mentioned. It was a great system.

These days, we always keep our used eggshells and old jars. My wife gives the eggshells to a lady who supplies us with eggs, and so we get them cheaper. (The eggshells get fed back to the chickens. It improves their egg quality.) She takes the jars to the local farmers' market when she buys honey -- and so we get our honey cheaper as well, because most folks never realize that jars cost money. The apiarists are always happy to get them like this because it means they don't have to lay out cash for their jars.

Over the years I've also bartered my labor in exchange for specialized services from other people in various trades. And besides the "cash-less" benefit, bartering is also a great way to get to know people in a community and to "fit in".

My story is just a story, but the fact remains that one day we might have to live as we once did, when so much was done by bartering goods or labor.


posted on Jun, 24 2010 @ 01:19 PM
This was an excellent read JustMike. It was sad that the main character would have to barter for her own coffin and the way the story was laid out and written made it seem like a very plausible scenario. Excellent work here.

posted on Jun, 24 2010 @ 04:54 PM
reply to post by jackflap

Thank you, Jackflap.

This story was a strange one. When I began writing it, I had no idea how I was going to end it; I didn't know what their "big ask" was. I only knew that the answer would present itself. And then, after I'd left it a while and just allowed the thoughts to flow, the answer came to me -- and it was something of a gentle surprise.

For me, while this story is sad it's also very human and therein, it carries an element of hope: even in the hardest times we try to cling to some of our old customs and beliefs. They help to keep us going, they are part of that something that makes us what we are.

And so, the story moved beyond the disaster itself to a possible world where we look forward but also hold on to some of our past. What they asked for was so very simple, really, but at the same time so utterly important.

I wish some of those "decision makers" who precipitated the Deepwater Horizon tragedy would look into themselves a bit deeper and look beyond the dollar signs that they live by. It is like their essence of humanity has faded to a cold shadow; the shallowness of their existence will be something they may deeply regret when the time comes to review their whole lives and they find themselves wanting.

If you took away their material wealth, what would they have to barter? Would we accept them into our community?

Think of a certain man who claims "deep regret", and then while thousands suffer with the loss of their livelihoods due to a disaster that his company has created, he is thousands of miles away, sailing his yacht over pristine waters in glorious sunshine.

What would he have to barter in a world where humanity and honesty -- and the willingness to pitch in and help -- mean more than money?


[edit on 24/6/10 by JustMike]

posted on Jun, 24 2010 @ 05:04 PM
reply to post by JustMike

Think of a certain man who claims "deep regret", and then while thousands suffer with the loss of their livelihoods due to a disaster that his company has created, he is thousands of miles away, sailing his yacht over pristine waters in glorious sunshine. What would he have to barter in a world where humanity and honesty -- and the willingness to pitch in and help -- mean more than money?

That whole thing infuriated me as well. I do not wish for any harm to come to the man and I would hope that as a civilized society we would be able to accept someone like this and find a place for him to contribute. The alternative is just too barbaric.

I cannot fathom how someone would take time off when it was the company he was in charge of that created such a horrific disaster. It is beyond my comprehension. In my opinion no one should get a break until this whole thing is resolved.

posted on Jun, 24 2010 @ 05:27 PM
After your last post I became fully aware of the large intensity of thought and depth behind it.

It's beautifull written and I can't wait for your future work, Mike!

posted on Jun, 24 2010 @ 09:48 PM
Well done. Was not expecting that ending.
Tragic future-scenario, but quite realistic.

posted on Jun, 26 2010 @ 10:49 AM
reply to post by jackflap

I agree; I do not wish him any harm either, though there are many who doubtless do. He is already carrying that burden and it will grow more wearying with each passing day.

If he wished to take a break for a day or so -- well, we all need breaks and are often better for them, if they are used in the right way. His break would perhaps have been better spent alone in a small rowboat on a quiet lake, with only nature’s whispers to talk to him and direct him in quiet contemplation.

reply to post by BlackPoison94

Thank you sincerely for your kind comments.

reply to post by LadySkadi

Thank you also. I think its realism lies in its relative simplicity. At the end of the day it will always be our basic humanity that matters most.


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