Fiction: The last cornershop in Islington

Mrs S hadn’t turned up at the shop for three days. Ketan looked forward to her visits. She followed the same routine, a pint of milk, a packet of peanuts and a token for the day’s lottery. They would talk about the weather, distant wars and the sad plight of the once mighty Arsenal football club.  Perhaps the lottery had come through or maybe Mrs S had left along with so many of his other customers over the years. Perhaps she was unwell or worse. Ketan’s children kept telling him that he worried too much, and that he should fret less and think of taking some time off. But Ketan couldn’t help it, and he had a lot of time on his hands these days.

Most who wandered into Ketan’s shop off Caledonian Road were lost tourists looking for directions or delivery drone technicians looking for a broken down drone. The tourists ended up in this part of London looking to visit the Google memorial, a massive glass and steel monument erected at the site of the now deceased company’s London head quarters. The building had been hit by a trans-Atlantic cargo drone, its navigation system hacked and it flown into the building just north of King’s Cross station in a horrible echo of the World Trade Center bombings.  Hundreds of people died in the explosion and the fires as the drones fuel and then it’s inflammable cargo ignited. The memorial now towered over the King’s Cross area and the outer edges of the borough of Islington, it’s multi faceted glass surfaces reflecting the few glimpses of the sun against the reliably gray London sky.

Over the last couple of years even the normally stable tourist business had dried up. Those people who were still around preferred to stay in the comfort of their home and take a virtual tour. There was still the odd straggler looking to have a more authentic experience, but it had been a quiet few weeks.

Ketan had never been much for using social media. He still remembered when receiving an email seemed magical. Mrs S had always been a somewhat of a recluse, but such a break from her routine of the last decade was out of character. They had known each other for years but had never exchanged social media details, email addresses or even phone numbers. Their relationship had always had boundaries, and they both were quite comfortable with them. So, with no way of contacting her, he called the council to see if they could send a social worker to check in on her.

As expected, there was no one at the council to actually speak to. Ketan had a chat with a polite customer service bot. It reassured him that someone would look into the incident as soon as possible before asking him for feedback on his experience with the bot and whether it could have done anything more to help. Ketan thought technology kept getting needier by the day.

He read lots of comic books when he was a teenager back in India. He loved the stories based on the Indian mythological sagas. He spent many a hot summer afternoon looking at the colorful panels with their fantastic beasts and immortal Gods. The comics with plots involving robots and artificial intelligence tended to bored him. They portrayed robots and computers as being powerful, usually unhinged, yet possessing a certain gravitas as they plotted the destruction of the human race and their conquest of Earth.

The future had appeared and the robots had turned out to be far more obsequious and irritating than those 20th century comic book writers had ever imagined. Ketan couldn’t imagine the skittish drones that came to a halt at the mere sight of a squirrel on the road wanting to take over the planet and enslave humanity.

As noon approached, Ketan prepared for the day’s deliveries. Most of central London had been listed for preservation. It was now impossible to build any substantial commercial buildings in the residential hubs around Islington. After the bombings of Google and the other technology company in the early 20’s, most businesses vacated premises in densely populated areas and either went fully virtual or to retreated to secure campuses in the outer exurbs of London. Retail outfits shut down warehouses and the giant malls and super markets that once had so threatened to put Ketan out of business had all disappeared.

Ketan found it ironic that sleepy Uxbridge was now London’s technology district and Islington a sleepy residential area populated by truculent old shop keepers and eccentric pensioners.

There were still people living in central districts who required the weekly shopping delivered or their dinner prepared. Ketan’s shop was much bigger than the narrow store front suggested. Ketan had bought up the leases on the shops on either side of his store after the real estate market crashed and the businesses shut down. He still kept his old narrow shop front but expanded his shop behind now closed facades of the Starbucks franchise and the dry cleaner. The narrow front entrance had allowed him to watch out for shoplifters in the chaos after the riots.

He had ridden out the recessions by changing his inventory as the area changed following the ups and downs of London’s economy.  Now there weren’t that many customers demanding ice cream in the middle of a winter night, or looking for artisanal cheeses. Ketan had some room to spare in his store. He decided to sub-lease some of the space to a drone delivery company. Ketan kept a small kiosk and refrigerator for his customers. The rest of shop had been laid out in a grid, with charging units in walls free-standing shelves standing floor to ceiling in the middle of the room.

Every afternoon a large drone would ride up caledonian road and drop off the day’s items outside Ketan’s shop. A couple of smaller, bipedal drones would come by and stack the shelves; their movements always precise and economical. If they were low on power, they would retreat to the charging ports on the walls  before moving on to their next tasks. Ketan always thought the drones looked a bit embarrassed when forced to stop stacking and take a quick hit off the wall.  Ketan found watching the drone’s precisely, calibrated actions fascinating at first, but now they just bored him.

He even tried to give them a hand but they stopped moving as soon as he approached within a meter of them. He ended up getting a phone call from a representative from the drone company politely asking him to not interfere with the drones. It was apparently a matter of healthy and safety and was a breach of the contract that Ketan had signed when he sublet the space.

Now and then a drone would break down and would be unable to fix itself. Sometimes it would be picked up by another bipedal drone and carried off to be fixed. But if no other drone was around, the scheduler would send a technician to take a look. They would usually turn up with some sort of diagnostic tool to hook up to the drone. With nothing else to do, the more sociable technicians usually stayed around for a cup of tea and a quick chat.  Ketan enjoyed those rare visits but suspected that the technicians really didn’t need to turn up, but were sent out as part of some job creation or outreach program.

Through out the day other drones would turn up at the shop. Most of them tended to be little flying delivery drones that would land on the pavement and roll into the store. They would pick up an item from the shelf and roll back out, taking off from the pavement to drop off the package somewhere in the neighborhood. Some would even hang around to have a quick charge before dashing off to their next delivery.

Ketan no longer needed to work sixteen hours a day and left the shop around seven every evening. He would lock up his kiosk and activate the security systems which allowed drones to come in and out overnight.  He decided to leave a bit early that evening since there wasn’t likely to be much business on hand. He locked up the kiosk and grabbed some fruits that had started to look a little worse for wear.

He thought about the old man who ran the kiosk in his old neighborhood. The man must have been in his seventies, but Ketan always remembered him as being ancient and wizened. The man sold cigarettes and candy and an eclectic, ever changing assortment of baubles. He would set up his kiosk on the pavement across the road from the old house. The old man had a short temper, but was friendly, and always ready to tell Ketan stories about famous cricketers and that time he had once ridden a train with Gandhi. The old man would sit out chatting, smoking until dusk when he would lock up his kiosk and go home.

One day Ketan had asked how decided when to lock up. The old man had replied that he waited until the the birds flew home and pointed to a flock of black birds flying above. Ketan thought of the old man as walked down the Caledonian road and saw six drones fly silently overhead, rushing to their destinations.