Science fiction short story competition - Winner

Julie Bissell

We take plastic
Science fiction short story competition


Julie Bissell grew up in east London and began reading science fiction in 1965. She worked as a qualified treasurer and accountant and took a BSc in Earth Sciences from the Open University for fun. Now retired, she lives in rural Essex and is making up for lost time by writing fiction, encouraged by a small group of enthusiastic writing friends.

We take plastic By Julie Bissell

When Doug saw the damage to the counter top on my truck, he went berserk.
“What did you do to it?” He demanded.
“I cleaned it!” I said. “Like I do every night! With the stuff you told me to use!”
Doug ran his fingertip across the scratch. It was deeper than I’d thought, and the edges of the scratch looked like they’d melted.
“Exactly the stuff I told you to use?” he asked. “Not any cheap stuff out of the corner shop?”
“Exactly the stuff!” I said. “I can show you the can, if you think I’m lying.”
Though maybe I’d run out of the expensive sanitiser he’d told me I had to use and bought a can of the cheap stuff they sold down the market. He was never gonna check, and I was the one who had to pay for it. It probably works just as well. And if it doesn’t, it’s healthy, getting a dose of bacteria and stuff. Keeps your immune system working. Customers ought to thank me.
“I’ll have to get someone to fill that in,” Doug said. He sighed, all martyred. Like he wasn’t making a fortune off his food trucks while people like me did all the hard work - drove around in Cambridge traffic, dealt with customers who whined like spoilt kids and cleaned the muck off the equipment in the evening.
“Thank you,” I said, and he scowled. I picked up the carton of food marked up for my round, stuck it in the fridge and drove off before he got really grouchy.
I thought I’d better get the name of the bloke who’d done the damage in the first place so Doug could direct his grouch to the person responsible. Doug has this tendency to get other people to pay the running costs of his business, and he wasn’t going to be charging me if I could help it.
I parked the truck on the Milton South Industrial Park just before eleven and set the tiny oven on to heat the first batch of pasties and pies. I opened the hatch on the side of the food truck and put the shelf down for all the stuff like sugar and salt and ketchup in sachets so weeny that everyone took three or four at a time. The hungry nerds in the offices above were watching my every move from their windows, and I had a queue within a minute. For the next three hours, I was busy serving all the lads who were drawn from their important futuristic science-y jobs by the thought of hot food. There’s primitive man in every single one of those smart idiots.
I kept looking for that chubby faced blond lad I’d seen yesterday. The one who’d emptied all the snot out of his nose into his fingers and wiped it off on the counter-top. I had to wait right round to half past two, but finally, there he was.
“What can I offer you today, sir?” I asked.
His eyes flicked down to my chest.
“What you got?” He said, smirking.
“Not much,” I said. “Couple of hummus wraps and a bacon roll.”
“Bacon roll,” he said. He got out his wallet.
“I’ll need your name,” I said. I leaned over the counter, snatched his wallet out of his hand and leaned back into the van so he couldn’t grab it.
“Oy!” he yelled.
I slid a credit card out of its pocket and read the name on it. “Jeremy Weston-Michaels. Wow, that’s some name.” I slid the card back into place and chucked the wallet over the counter onto the flowerbed behind him.
“What was all that about?” He demanded.
“You blew your nose and wiped it on my counter yesterday,” I said. “See what you did?”
I pointed to the deep gouge in the counter.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jeremy said. “That wasn’t me. Anyway, mucus isn’t acidic.”
“This appeared when I tried to clean your snot off the counter yesterday,” I said. “It’ll cost to get this fixed. You busted it, you pay for it. My boss and his tough guys will be down later to discuss what happens if you don’t pay up. Where do you work, kid?”
Jeremy grabbed his wallet out of the flowerbed and ran back inside. Stupid boy. Now I knew his name and which building he worked in. All Doug had to do was get this gouge filled in and come back here to put pressure on Jeremy to pay for it.
I stowed away the remaining food, latched the cupboards and shut the hatch. As I leaned on the counter, it snapped in half along the gouge and a fishy smelling gloop oozed out onto my hands. Nice. When Doug came over to give Jeremy the frighteners, I had a good mind to ask if I could grab a rounders bat and join in.

The stink in the cab was unbearable on the drive home. My hands kept sliding on the steering wheel. By the time I parked outside my place, everything felt slimy.
I sent Doug a text to let him know the name of the twerp who’d damaged the counter and where he worked, then went out to clean the van. Or tried to clean it. Everywhere I scrubbed immediately stank like rotting fish, and I gave it up as a bad job after ten minutes. Hopefully the stench would clear overnight. If it didn’t, I’d have no customers except the ones with no sense of smell. How I was going to sell food from a food truck with no counter was tomorrow’s problem.

Actually, that wasn’t the worst problem I faced the next day. My phone was totally stuck in its case, so I didn’t know whether Doug had got my message about Jeremy or not. Worse still, I couldn’t find the key to the van. I was fishing in my jeans pocket for the fifth time when I reached the street.
The van… looked like that goofy melted cathedral in Barcelona. The steering wheel, half of the dashboard, the knob off the gearstick, and all the lettering had just - dissolved. It looked like someone had poured a strong acid over the whole van.
I found the ignition key. Well, the metal tongue of it. The plastic butt of the key had fallen off and lay like a blob of warm toffee in my pocket. Today’s sandwich round was busted before it began.

I caught the bus to Doug’s warehouse, and that wasn’t a fun journey. I hadn’t been able to wash the slime off my hands, so I couldn’t keep a grip on the handrails. The other passengers probably thought I was drunk. All that slime. This was turning into a re-run of Ghostbusters, and at the time I thought that was probably the worst part of my entire day. My grandparents think that film is the funniest thing they ever saw as kids, which tells you a lot about growing up in the 1980’s.
“Where’s the van?” Doug demanded.
“It melted,” I said.
“If you crashed it, just say so,” Doug snapped. “I have a workman turning up at ten to fill that scrape in the counter.”
“The counter snapped in half,” I said. “And I didn’t crash the van…”
“You reek!” Doug said. He leaned closer and sniffed, then stepped back, sharpish. “What are you wearing, fish paste and diesel cologne?”
“No,” I said. “It’s that slimy stuff Jeremy Weston Michaels left on the counter… I can’t wash it off. I think it’s some kind of acid. Any plastic stuff it touches just dissolves.”
“Jeremy Weston-Michaels,” Doug said, frowning. “The man on the news?”
“What news?” I asked. “I haven’t caught any news reports. What’s he done?”
“Some kind of toxic leak in a lab in Cambridge,” Doug said. “He ended up in hospital. Oh hell. Janey… if you came into contact with this guy… you need to call Addenbrookes.”
“Leak?” I said. I looked at my hands. They looked a bit – shiny.
“Stay there,” Doug said. He backed away, got out his phone and dialled. “Don’t touch anything.”
“I need the toilet,” I said. “Gotta wash my hands again.”
I grabbed the doorknob of his office, and it squelched through my fingers like fresh dog poo.
“I need the number for Addenbrookes Hospital,” Doug said into his phone. “Infectious diseases department, if you’ve got it. Janey, don’t touch anything else.”

It’s amazing, what they do in those tech places around Cambridge. Jeremy’s company was working on a solution to the plastic crisis – they’d developed a strain of bacteria that ate plastic and excreted hydrogen gas and carbon pellets. Which is an utterly brilliant idea, unless the nearly-working version escapes. The version that dissolves plastic and leaves a trail of stinking gunge like slug goo behind.
Apparently, Jeremy wasn’t careful enough about washing the bacteria off his hands with the bactericide his company supplied, so he basically gave away his company’s product for free. To me.
Addenbrookes are not that thrilled about me being in their isolation ward. You wouldn’t believe how much plastic there is in hospital equipment, and how fast the equipment breaks down when the plastic dissolves. Anyway, not much point in isolating me. Everyone who’d touched the same bus handrails I had touched, all the students in my house-share, the guy who tried to tow the food truck off the street outside my house and touched the steering wheel – well, bacteria spreads. Whoops. Seems the floor tiles here are made of some kind of plastic. Were, I should say. Were made of plastic.
Once my parents get over the fact that I didn’t tell them the total truth about the exact nature of my important job supporting the emerging technological businesses in Cambridge, they might be pleased with me. After all, when they were my age, they campaigned to get plastic removed from the world. What’s the saying? Be careful what you wish for.

Judges Comments

Julie Bissell's sardonic, blackly humourous We Take Plastic, the winner of WM's Sci-Fi short story competition, is a darkly entertaining piece of eco-fiction that imagines the nightmarish conditions that might ensue if – all of a sudden – there were no more plastic.

It's a clever twist on the (deservedly) oft-repeated truism that the world's reliance on plastic has had devastating effects on its eco-systems. Here, in a realistically down-to-earth furture world, the narrator is a service worker whose job selling food from a truck is de-railed by a casual laboratory mishap. Work intended to combat the plastic problem and contribute to the planet's wellbeing disastrously backfires. It's a darky humourous story that escalates to depict the devastating consequnces of a minor mishap.

Julie has done an excellent job in conveying her narrator and her boss: their reparteee and  working conditions come across really well, and contrast with the privileged existence of the young Cambridge scientist (called Jeremy, which demonstrates how effective it is when a character is given exactly the right name). The global nightmare that has been unleashed as all the plastic melts is, as Julie's story shows, only a part of a person's reality, with the narrator's worry about their parents finding out what their job really was as much of a worry as the global catastrophe that has been unleashed. Blending ecological nightmare and human meltdown, it deploys a genuinely relatable human voice to create a really effective and thought-provoking look at how a scientific disaster might spiral out of control.


Runner-up: Benjamin Speers
Also shortlisted in WM’s Sci-Fi Short Story Competition were: Nadya Mercik, London; Dominic Bell, Hull; Shaun Aston, London; Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire; Lucy Smallbone, Northfield, Birmingham; Maria Dean, Cote Farm, Thackley