fiction, poetry & more

2023
FLASH FICTION CONTEST
Honorable Mention
$25 Award

WINNING HEARTS AND FLAGS

by Natasha Stokes

In the stockroom of a bicycle shop off Trafalgar Square, the MP Lord Gavin Philp stroked his bowtie gloomily. His wife had said it made him look quirky, like a man of the people.  

“Are we sure he really did it?” he asked again.

His aide Amma tapped play. In the TruVid, the President of the People’s Republic of China sat astride a black stallion, wearing nothing but hot-pink swim trunks and waving at grubby-looking people huddled by some Forbidden Temple or other. A translated caption read, Unanimously Elected His Excellency Galvanises Great Capital’s Very Few Homeless!  

721.4m hearts, 599.9m shares, 911.3m red Chinese flags. “Surely it’s—what are they called—a serious fake?”

“Deepfake,” murmured Amma, “and MI5 scanned it. It’s real.”

“But it’s winter! Even colder in Beijing than it is here!” Gavin stared at the Chinese leader’s muscular thighs gripping the stallion. Bareback. And he had a six-pack. Gavin rubbed his own abdomen, which yielded under the attention.  

“That’s why the people love it,” said Amma. “It shows fortitude, it’s crazy, it’s fun. It shows he gets the youth.” 

“Fortitude, eh? You certainly have an excellent command of English. So Chinese people love it?” 

“All people love it.” She sounded snappy though who could divine why? 

Amma consulted her tablet. “His Excellency’s global approval is now close to doubling our Prime Minister’s, especially after the offer of Chinese citizenship to anyone who has visited the PRC in the last decade.”  

“I don’t know how he can even say that,” muttered Gavin. As Minister of Welcomes, he knew well the burden citizens put on national resources. He was in charge of admitting people into Britain—even those without proper visas who he sometimes, regretfully, had to send back to wherever they’d come from, or to France where he was assured there was plenty of space and whatnot.

“Your job, sir, is to post a better TruVid. The Prime Minister has set a target of eight hundred million hearts.” Amma brandished a yellow bikini.

* * *

Lord Gavin reluctantly shucked his boxers and pulled on the bikini bottom. It stretched to accommodate his buttocks and he was pleased to note he filled out the front.

He adjusted himself. “Is the top necessary? Not very, er, masculine.”

From the other side of the makeshift changing area, Amma said, “The PM says we must escalate. Make our TruVid more engaging. More share-worthy.” 

“Easy for him to say.” 

“Between you and me, sir, after what he said last week, our office needs the ratings.”

Gavin felt a flutter of pride at being confided in. “Yes, absolutely shocking. I believe everyone should,” he mentally practised the unfamiliar words before continuing, “express their identity in a way they feel is true and resonant.” 

There was a brief silence. “We should greet the media,” said Amma.  

He tied the top around his chest and smoothed it over his nipples. He’d wondered if he’d been overdoing it on the wagyu and veal in the office canteen, but by Grimm, he didn’t look half bad. Trafalgar Square wouldn’t know what hit it.  

Gavin slipped on his robe and pulled aside the curtain.  

“Sir?” 

“I’d like to keep the bowtie on,” he said.

* * *

The shop was crowded with what passed for the media. All TruVid-loggers or some such, asking the numb-headed questions one’d expect from flighty youth who were simply unequipped to understand politics.  

“MP Philp! Why do you reject ninety-four percent of asylum-seekers from flooded regions?”

“Sir! Eighty-five children drowned in the Channel after the Border Force turned them away! Any statement for surviving family?”

“Oy, Gavin! Is the bowtie a message of solidarity to the thousands of grandparents deported by Britain?”

Shah, the shop manager, grinned nervously at Gavin. “I hope this will do,” he said, pointing at a bicycle in the centre of the shop.  

“Say something nice,” Amma hissed.  

Gavin stared at the wheeled contraption. “Those pedals seem sturdy.”  

His watch buzzed with notifications.

Amma checked her tablet. “Our followers are ordering the pedals.”

“The saddle is an ergonomic cradler with poly-gel interior,” said Shah hopefully.  

Amma nudged Gavin.  

“The saddle … will be very comfortable.” His wrist vibrated as if he was being electrostimulated at the office spa. If only he were there now.

“Over three hundred deaths in UK refugee camps! Can you comment?” yelled some yob and the other yobs clapped.  

“Very well! Let’s get started!” Gavin didn’t like to shout, but occasionally it was necessary to exert one’s authority over the lower classes. What a pickle the Prime Minister had put him in, for Gavin truly hated to elucidate the differences between the elite and everyone else.

He dropped his robe and everyone pointed their phones at his pale, hairy, middle-aged body clad in the yellow bikini. Outside on Trafalgar Square, there was the roar of a crowd.

* * *

MP Lord Gavin Philp fought the urge to cover his belly, his hardening nipples, his crown jewels and their shrivelling bulge.

He straddled the bicycle and his right foot discovered a muscle memory that spun the pedal to just the right height, filling Gavin with a long-forgotten confidence.  

“That’s it, sir!” said Amma.

He arranged himself on the saddle’s cup-like cradle and cycled awkwardly out of the shop, the media following.

“Last month Border Force put three women in labour onto an inflatable boat! Do you have a soul, MP Philp?”

And then he was gliding through the cold past thousands of people, all cheering for him.  He sped up joyfully, dizzy on this admiration and his release from the media and their nasty, ignorant questioning.

When the news alert pinged, Amma thought it unfair she’d not been updated.

China Leader TruVid Confirmed Deepfake; AI Advancements ‘Worrying’ – MI5

She read it at the same time as many of the people thronging Trafalgar Square.  Their hooting and laughter were assumed by Gavin to be accolades for his performance, bare legs cycling furiously, the cupping of the saddle his only warmth in the icy air.

Natasha Kamun Stokes is a Singaporean-Australian writer and editor in Barcelona. She has been a technology journalist in London and an arts editor in Hong Kong, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University of London. She is inspired by imperfect technology, the late afternoon, and the rule of three. This is her first fiction publication.
 

December 2023