Julie Ma: WiLT

Nicola had spent the last five minutes scuttling up and down the corridors like a mouse in a science experiment. The technical college seemed so much more maze-like than when she’d last been there, straight after school, doing the secretarial course. She’d wanted to be an inventor, like Hymen Lipman, the man who thought to put the rubber on the end of the pencil, or Mary Andersen, who dreamed up the windscreen wiper. There’d been a book in the school library about them, but the careers officer had explained that it didn’t matter how good your CSEs were, you had to go to Tech. Or become a hairdresser.

She knew now she’d been going around in circles because she’d spotted those toilets before, that notice board before, yes, even that stain on the carpet tile before. She was about to give up and go home to watch what Phil and Grant and Ken and Deirdre were up to when she spotted a group of other middle-aged women filing into the end room.

There was a landscape piece of A4 taped to the glass window of the door.

‘Welcome to WiLT’, it said.

Nicola remembered this room. It overlooked the car park and had rows and rows of Olympia typewriters. They’d sat there, carbon paper on one side, Liquid Paper on the other, tapping out ‘The Quick Brown Dog Jumped Over the Lazy Dog’ again and again while the metronome ticked, setting the pace for their fingers.

Now it was like something out of a science fiction film. The desks were relocated around the perimeter of the room and at each one one sat a breezeblock of a plastic box with a television on top. In front of both of them was a flat looking typewriter without the ribbons, carriage or levers. There were ten of these space-age contraptions which must have cost the council a fortune.

There was a buzz of chatter, but Nicola couldn’t take part in it. It looked like everyone else had come with a friend. There had been nobody Nicola could ask. None of the cousins were interested in Learning Technology and both of her friends had children to look after. She looked around at the others, already buddied-up with a computer-sharing partner.

‘It’ll be good for you,’ Stuart had said. ‘Learn something new. Make new friends.’

Fat chance.

‘Now, are we all here?’ asked the tutor, whose name badge said Brenda. She traced a finger down a sheet of A4 and glanced at the empty chair next to Nicola. ‘Well, I’ll get started anyway. Welcome to our eight-week course: Women in Learning and Technology, or WiLT, as we like to call it.

As some of you will know, everything is getting computerised nowadays. Business, offices, shops – they all use computers, and if we want to work with them, we will have to know how to use them. It’s predicted that each of us will soon have computers in our own homes. Your children are lucky enough to have them in school and are learning to use them every day. Now it’s Mum’s turn.’

Nicola’s heart sank. She wasn’t anybody’s mum and it was becoming rather unlikely that she ever would be.

‘Before we get started, we should turn on our machines,’ Brenda continued.

There was a murmur of excitement.

‘Just before we do that, does anyone have any questions?’

A woman put her hand up. She was wearing a fluffy jumper that had a leopard picked out in sequins on the front. Her generous embonpoint gave the leopard’s face a Bell’s Palsy look.

‘I’m worried about computers taking over. Especially in the Millennium. I’ve heard they won’t know it’s 2000 and want to take us back in time to 1900. That’s before I was born.’

The tutor smiled with a too-patient look on her face. ‘Well, that’s the best part of ten years away so I don’t think -’

The door banged open and an extremely tall, slim girl rushed in. She was wearing, of all things, a catsuit. Muffled laughter rippled around the room. It stopped when it got to Nicola, who was thinking: ‘Well, she certainly has got the figure for it. Why not?’

‘Sorry I’m late,’ the newcomer said, before depositing herself in the chair next to Nicola.

Her companion looked like she had something shiny in her hair, like space dust. She gave Nicola such a friendly look that Nicola turned around to see if there was anyone else behind her. She had no idea who this woman was but she still smiled back as nicely as she could.

‘As I was saying, I don’t think we need to worry too much about the year 2000 right now.’ continued the tutor. ‘We’re just going to looking at some popular applications.’

The shiny hair catsuit girl sniggered a word that sounded like ‘Apps’ and pressed a hand to her mouth.

‘. . . popular applications that we can all use. Like word processing, spreadsheets, databases and MS-Dos commands.’

Nicola’s neighbour seemed to be snorting with laughter but then she pulled out a large cotton handkerchief, perhaps she was just having a coughing fit.

After Brenda’s demonstration, everyone was left with the flickering cube of the cursor to ponder and a pile of exercises to work through.

‘You must be Nicola,’ said the girl with the space dust in her hair. ‘My name’s Cersei.’

‘Kirstie?’ asked Nicola.

‘No, s-s-s, Cersei, from Game of, game of, game of football?’

‘Unusual name,’ said Nicola.

‘He plays for Panathinaikos. My Mum really likes Greek football.’

‘Oh, your mother likes football?’

‘Both of them do.’


‘Both my mothers. Oh shit, I mean both my mother, singular and my father. Who was, I mean is, her husband.’

Nicola pulled her chair in to get closer to the computer. Which also conveniently took her further away from Kirstie/Cersei/Whatever.

Week One: Turn on the computer. Turn off the computer. Harder than it sounds because you have to ‘save’ things.

Week Two: Key in everything you did in Week One again because you didn’t save it properly last week. It was either that or because you managed to bend your floppy disk in your handbag.

Week Three: WordPerfect is just a name. It’s far from bloody perfect.

Week Four: Get a gold star for the first time in life ever for efficient and speedy spreadsheet creation and use. Notice looks that could kill from everyone else except Cersei who kisses you on the cheek.

Week Five: Return from coffee break to see your database has been deleted. When you get home, you find a handful of paper clips and a fridge magnet attached to your floppy disk. The fridge magnet is from the London Dungeon. You’ve never been to London.

Week Six: Keep head down, speaking only to Cersei. Don’t volunteer any answers. Don’t let yourself believe you’re quite good at WiLT-ing.

Week Seven: Don’t go to WiLT after incident in queue at the deli in Safeway.

Week Seven and a Half:

It was Stuart’s night for coaching the under 12s and Nicola was settling down to a night of the soaps. She enjoyed them and it gave her something to talk about at work the next day. Balancing two custard creams on the saucer, she carried her tea into the living room. She was about to sit down when there was a knock at the door.

She wasn’t expecting anyone, so she ignored it. There was another knock. And then another.

It was Cersei. Her long-limbed, nylon catsuit body was attracting attention from Martin across the road. He was already stubbing his cigarette out on the garden fence so he could come over for a nose.

‘Get in here,’ Nicola hissed, dragging the girl over the threshold. ‘What are you doing here? How did you know where I live?

Funny, she thought, that nylon catsuit doesn’t feel horrible at all, it feels lovely and silky. Light like air.

It was only polite to make another cup of tea and open the biscuit barrel again. Cersei examined her Jaffa cake carefully before nibbling at its edges. ‘I’ve come . . .’ she scrunched up her eyes with concentration and sighed so heavily that her fringe flipped up before falling back into shiny perfection. The smell of Orangey Bit in the Middle lingered in the air between them.
‘. . . because you weren’t in class last week.’

‘I wasn’t feeling myself,’ replied Nicola.

‘You weren’t feeling yourself as you are now? Or yourself as you’d like to be?’

‘I meant I was feeling poorly. I must have had a migraine.’

‘You? A migraine? When did you start getting migraines?’

This was beyond a bloody cheek. Coming into her house. Calling her a liar. Being completely correct.

‘Come on, Nicola, you know you’ve got a talent for it. You have to keep going to the class. What will we all do if you give up?’

As Cersei leaned forward to pat Nicola on the knee, she noticed for the first time the girl’s pendant as it dangled out between the zip’s teeth. There was a woman’s face on it, done out like those photos of the Queen Mother or the old Queen Mary, all rosy cheeked and regal looking. The thing was that the woman looked just like Nicola’s mum. She looked away quickly and when she looked back, Cersei had zipped up her catsuit and the pendant was hidden.

‘I should think you’ll all manage just fine,’ said Nicola, ‘whoever you all are. I enjoyed using the computers but it’s not worth the trouble. I had to put up with bullying at school. I didn’t have a choice then, but now I do.’

‘Are you talking about the incident when Barbara Freeman and Jacquie Turner stole your schoolbag and threw it onto the railway line?’ asked Cersei.

‘How do you know about that?’

‘You must have told me.’

‘I never would have. Not even Stuart knows about it.’

‘Well, how else would I know?’

I must have mentioned it then, thought Nicola, and forgotten.

‘And then you couldn’t reach it because of the fence, so you used those bits of gear someone fly-tipped to make a hook and pulley system to get it back.’

‘Did I?’ Nicola only remembered the bullying and how bad it had made her feel, but yes, she supposed she had been resourceful. Perhaps.
Wouldn’t anyone else have done the same?

‘Not anyone would have done the same. Only you had the know-how and the determination to do it,’ said Cersei.

Strange, I don’t remember saying that out loud.

‘Well, you did,’ said Cersei.

Or that. How come this peculiar woman knows what I’m thinking? Could she possibly be. . ?

‘I’m not a mind reader, Nicola, I just want to make sure you do the best for yourself. When you complete the WiLT course, you might consider moving further with the topic. Who knows where it could lead you? You don’t want to stay in the typing pool forever, do you?’

‘I might,’ said Nicola. She looked pointedly at the clock. ‘It’s getting late.’
Time for weirdos to leave my house. Sorry, not weirdos, visitors. I didn’t mean to think that out loud.

‘If I leave now, will you promise to go to the last of the WiLT classes?’

This is all too strange. Agree to anything. Just to get rid of her. ‘Yes, I promise.’


It was good to be back, thought Cersei as she blinked her way back to the office. Teleportation by blinking. That was another thing that probably wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for what started in that technical college way back in the 1990s. She shuddered to think how the petty actions of a few middle-aged women could have changed the course of world history. She used her thumbs to trace a square in front of her so that the familiar text appeared, hanging in mid-air.

Mother of Invention

Although not as familiar to us as Tim Berners Lee, Leonardo da Vinci and Alexander Graham Bell, the name Nicola Cole deserves to be as well-known as any of the aforementioned men.

‘Of course, at the beginning, none of us could have dreamed how far we would come. If time travel had not been invented, I would not have invented time travel,’ she said in an interview weeks before she died.

‘It was the first small step into the Women in Learning Technology initiative that made this all possible. Even then, I very nearly gave up for the silliest of reasons. It was the appearance of Cersei Railly on 27th May 1993 that convinced me to carry on. Knowing that she was to appear on that date means I can leave instructions as to what she should say. Even though Cersei has not yet been born, the following is a full transcript.

Cersei: I’ve come because you weren’t in class last week.

Nicola: I wasn’t feeling myself.

Cersei: You weren’t feeling yourself as you are now? Or yourself as you’d like to be?

Before her appearance on Funny Pearls, Julie Ma’s greatest literary claim to fame was that her grandfather cleaned Dylan Thomas’s trousers in the family’s Chinese laundry. Twitter: cawsmenu